The French Revolution

Richard Hooker (

History always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, and the second time as farce. (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)


The revolution in France has captivated the imaginations of historians since it exploded the European landscape two hundred years ago. There are few if any events in European history that are regarded as fundamental to the character of the European world as the giddy, frightening, farcical, and overwhelmingly tragic events during and after the French Revolution. It may be that the event has been grossly overestimated. It was, after all, a complete failure; it ended the monarchy in France, but it ended in a different monarchy so repugnant and violent that the sloppy laziness of the eighteenth century monarchy simply palled in relation to the calculated violence of the years of Napoleon's emperorship. The ideas of the revolution were not new; in fact, the revolution itself was simply a gathering point, a boiling pot in which ideas of the Enlightenment and the philosophes erupted into a single action. The ideas that originated during the revolution bordered on the farcical. In their efforts to remake society based on individuality and rights, the French reformers insanely went about changing the days of the months and even instituting a church of Reason. In fact, if the cost had not been the loss of thousands of innocent, terrified lives, lives snuffed out at the mere whims of their accusers, the Revolution itself was little more than ludicrous farce played out on the stage of European history. But the Revolution was not an innocent affair; like the First World War, its sheer stupidity and ludicrousness got swallowed up in an ocean of blood and a flood of terror. While no event in European history is more important in the eventual formation of the modern state, the Revolutionaries and Napoleon to follow also gave birth to modern mass destruction of human life. In sheer volume of lives lost, they are on a par with the violence of the Third Reich in the twentieth century.

Matthew Arnold once wrote of the end of the eighteenth century as a terrifying place, "caught between two worlds, one dead, the other struggling to be born." The extravagances and the tragedies of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France can perhaps be forgiven in that there was no model for a modern state or modern society. The old monarchy, the old aristocratic system, was effectually obsolete. A new society, formed mainly by the middle class and based on capitalism, was struggling to be born. This new society prized rights and property over hereditary birth, regional over national government, contractual over class relationships. It would take over a century for this new society to settle into new patterns of organization and authority; the Revolutionaries, however, wanted to do it overnight.

But the Revolution was a complete and thorough failure, a fact that historians tend to pass over when discussing its importance. More important to the formation of the modern state was the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and the development of Parliamentary democracy in that country during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. These centuries saw the development of all the patterns of governmental authority that would underlie the modern state; their first actualization in a non-monarchical country, however, was in America. By the time of the French Revolution, a group of dedicated, classically educated thinkers, lawyers, and plain politicians in America had forged the first working, non-monarchical European state. This new state was based almost entirely on the principles that guided the Revolutionaries in France: democracy, checks and balances, non-religious state authority, capitalism, rights, and individuality. It, along with England's parliamentary government, would become the real model for the new European state.

The Revolution, though, is a ripping good story. It also affected the largest population in Europe and so it shook Europeans to the core of their being. Over 20% of Europe's population lived in France, and every European agreed that France was the central power of Europe. For such a large and powerful country to fall precipitously into such dark and violent change terrified everyone in Europe; the universal condemnation of the Revolution led to a flurry of introspection. The pain of the process, however, this long, difficult process of remaking society into a non-monarchical, industry-based, modern society, would continue well into the 1940's and beyond.

The story begins in the one world, "dead," the world of the ancien regime, in its last, blissfully unaware days. It unfolds into magnificent and visionary action: the brave defiance of the monarch, the visionary power of the middle class representatives in the Estates General, and the great documents on rights and autonomy. It quickly, however, descends into both tragedy and farce: the radical revolution that sought to remake society from the ground up, no matter what the cost in human life. It ends with Napoleon, brilliant, visionary, cruel, and ultimately a figure of farce, if only he hadn't flooded Europe with the blood of so many people. It was the birth of the nineteenth century, the unambiguous start of a modern era, in which the French, alternatively majestic and vile at the same time, stepped away from the past without looking back.

The Crisis of the Monarchy

The Ancien Regime

The latter half of the eighteenth century saw fundamental challenges to the absolutist monarchy that had been built in France in the seventeenth century. Louis XIV and his advisors had attempted to centralize the monarch's authority by both limiting the power of regional aristocrats and parlements and by establishing a civil bureaucracy loyal to the king. The foundation of that bureaucracy was the intendant system, in which individual regions came under the control of a single intendant who oversaw, for the most part, the administration of that region. The intendants were largely selected from persons not of the aristocracy and, ideally, were put in charge of regions where they didn't live in the first place. This would make sure that they would be more dedicated to the monarch than to their own or the local aristocracy's interests.

The intendant system had created unrest, particularly among the aristocracy. All through the eighteenth century, the aristocracy and the regional parlements continued to agitate for what they called libertés , by which they meant those areas of regional government that should be in the hands of the region rather than the monarch. However, by the time of Louis XVI, who ruled from 1774 until his execution in 1792, the intendant system had become hopelessly corrupt. Almost all the intendants were now nobility, and their first allegiance was to themselves rather than the monarch.

The parlements were also asserting more independence. All throughout the eighteenth century, the regional parlements agitated for their "constitutional" rights (although France didn't have a constitution). Before Louis XIV's reforms, the regional parlements had the right to veto any monarchical legislation. This was meant to be a check on the power of the monarch—and it was extremely effective. Louis XIV abrogated that right and made vetoing a crime; if any regional parlement vetoed his legislation, he'd clap the lot of them in jail. However, during the eighteenth century, these parlements began resisting first Louis XV and then Louis XVI. The real break in royal power over the parlements, however, came when Louis XVI tried to recover some of the expenses of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) by raising taxes. The regional parlements successfully vetoed this measure and later when the Paris parlement refused to enact a land tax by claiming it didn't have the authority to do so.

All of these crises, however, were not as serious as a crisis that was growing in the very fiber of French society: class antagonism. France in the eighteenth century was a deeply stratified society; it was divided into three estates: the nobility, the church, and the third estate (everyone who is not nobility or in the church). The division between the first two estates and the third was rigidly enforced; on the whole, the administration of France was in the hands of the first two estates.

All throughout the eighteenth century, the tension between the first two and the third estate was growing; in many ways, the French Revolution is more about this class tension than it is about monarchical power. While historians like to blame Louis XVI as an ineffectual king and his wife, Marie Antoinette, as offensive and disengaged, there was little that Louis could have done about the rising class tensions. These tensions were fueled, in part, by the rise of the mercantile and productive classes. Wealth was beginning to move from the nobility to the third estate; along with their growing economic importance, the wealthy entrepreneurs and merchants of the third estate wanted more control over regional parlements , the state government, taxes, and even the church.

One of the flash points for this tension was the French Catholic church itself; the members of the church made up the First Estate. Almost all the high offices were occupied by the nobility: cardinals, bishops, archbishops, and so on. These church officials enjoyed tremendous power in government and got huge salaries which they collected from the taxes on church property. Because their incomes were derived from church property, they didn't have to pay any taxes (neither did the nobility, who made up the Second Estate). Parish priests, who were largely drawn from the Third Estate, got dog wages. Imagine this now: every time a member of the Third Estate pays taxes, he knows that some of that money will flow into the pockets of overstuffed church officials. He also knows that the nobility aren't paying taxes.

The Third Estate had some power, however, in the Estates General, which was a national legislative body called by the monarch. The Estates General, however, was constituted in such a way as to obviate the interests of the Third Estate. Unlike a regular Parliamentary body, in which each person has a single vote, the Estates General assembly voted by Estate. Each estate got a single vote. So even though the members of the Third Estate held a majority, the First and Second Estates always got their way.

So, despite their growing wealth and economic influence, the wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs of the Third Estate were effectively closed out of government. They could not hold any sort of high political office, could not influence the Estates General, and couldn't even vote.

The other half of the Third Estate, the peasants, were even angrier. While the wealthy members of the Third Estate were eventually responsible for starting the Revolution, it was the peasantry that really fired it. The peasants were, simply speaking, grossly abused by their noble landlords. Every peasant, no matter how poor, had to pay fees to the landlord for the use of facilities and fees and tithes to the church—most of the money they paid to the church went to the astronomical salaries the upper church officials were collecting. Almost all the country's tax burden fell on the Third Estate; the peasants had to pay taxes on just about everything, including salt (a tax that would in part help fan the flames of revolution), while the first two estates got away with paying little or no taxes. That wasn't all. The peasants also had to pay a labor tax, called the corvée , which required them to work so many days each year maintaining the public roads.

These divisions were not limited to divisions between the Estates. The Second Estate especially was not a unified class. It was made up of two kinds of nobility: the "Nobles of the Robe" and the "Nobles of the Sword." The "Nobles of the Sword" were aristocrats who dated their titles back to the Middle Ages and beyond, while the "Nobles of the Robe" had acquired their titles by assuming administrative or judicial posts—posts they were often appointed to because they paid for them. The Nobles of the Sword had little commerce or respect for the Nobles of the Robe; this division was a crucial element in the downfall of the monarchy and the Revolution. Many of the Revolutionaries came from the Nobles of the Robe; their interests often more closely aligned with the interests of the Third Estate.

Such was the mix as the French monarchy lurched into its last decade. At the center of the crisis stood Louis, struggling for centralized authority but disengaged from the process of government in a way that Louis XIV wasn't. Beneath him was an inffectual administration, and their desperate measures to solve an ever-deepening financial crisis would be the last element in a super-saturated solution, a final crisis that would precipitate the Revolution.

Louis XVI

History has not been kind to Louis XVI; in fact, history is rarely kind to the losers. He is painted as vain, unintelligent, and ineffectual, so clueless that on the day the Bastille was seized by Revolutionaries, he wrote in his diary, "Rien," "Nothing happened."

It's difficult, however, to really assign any blame. The Revolution itself was an extraordinarily complicated affair; it was principally lit by the antagonisms between the first two and the Third Estate, antagonisms rooted in decades of abuse and frustration. It is certain that Louis XVI failed to maintain the centralization of power; all the forces in France were conspiring to fragment power away from the monarchy.

Louis ascended the throne at the age of twenty; he was of average intelligence, but was not overly concerned with the running of the country. In the French imagination, he was seen as representing everything that the Estates opposed: centralized government, wealth, indifference. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was vilified by all the members of the Estates as indifferent and calculating. The reality, however, was probably much different. Like most noblewomen, she was raised in an isolated atmosphere; her life at the French court was, like Louis's, utterly isolated from the non-aristocratic world. The Revolution took her and Louis by surprise; while she was vilified and hated by the Revolutionaries and the Third Estate, she had no part in any of the abuses of the government or the nobility which precipitated the Revolution. 

When Louis had first ascended the throne, his chief financial officer was a man named Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), who was a brilliant and creative administrator. Turgot instantly set about trying to reform the country's financial situation by instituting a series of reforms that included replacing the corvée with a tax on landowners, an easing of guild laws to allow industrial manufacturing to increase, and, radically, a sharp cut in monarchical expenses. Had these reforms gone through, the Revolution probably would never have happened. These reforms, however, were the cause of the agitation by the parlements in reasserting their veto rights—these parlements were, of course, made up largely of nobility who would have to pay the new tax.

When the reforms failed, Louis dismissed Turgot. From that point onwards, the country would fall into ruinous financial crisis. At the heart of the crisis was the financial and administrative mismanagement of taxes. Both the Seven Years War and the French support of the American Revolution had put France deeply in debt; over one half of the country's budget was dedicated to paying off that debt. While this sounds extreme, it was fairly typical of European countries at the time.

Tax collection, however, was a disaster. Taxes varied from region to region, and most of the taxes were collected by private businessmen. They would loan the taxes to the government and then collect the taxes directly; they then paid themselves both the principal and the interest on the loan and sent the rest to the government. They were, of course, free to withhold as much as they wanted, so the Third Estate was paying far more in taxes than actually went to the government. What's worse is that the finances of the country were not centralized; there were hundreds of offices disbursing out money. By the 1780's, no one had any idea as to what the total asset and liability profile of the nation looked like.

The financial crisis precipitated a steep inflationary rise in prices. This inflation was good news for French manufacturing and mercantilism because it resulted in a significant shot of capital into emerging industrial and mercantile businesses. It played hell, however, with the peasantry. Not only did the peasants have to pay higher prices for the basics of life (the peasants lived in a subsistence economy only), but landlords began raising fees on the peasantry when they saw their purchasing power decrease. By 1789, over 80 percent of an average peasant's household income went to purchasing bread alone—just bread. In that same year, unemployment in many parts of France was over 50%.

The stage is set. In 1787, Louis's financial ministers, Charles de Calonne and Loménie de Brienne, try to initiate a series of reforms to stave off the complete financial ruin of the French government. They want new taxes. The parlements, which have the authority to raise taxes, want something in return: more regional independence. The aristocracy won't budge on the matter; when Louis calls a select group of nobles together to sell him on the reforms, they flat out refuse to consider the matter. They insist, rather, that the only legislative body that can approve the new taxes is the Estates General, which hadn't been called since 1614.

Louis had no choice. He called the Estates General in 1788, and, without anyone knowing it, the Revolution had begun.

The Liberal Revolution

The Estates General

When Louis summoned the Estates General in 1788, he faced a difficult and insurmountable problem: the Third Estate. The last time the Estates General had been called was in 1614; the Estates General was set up in such a way that each Estate got the same number of members. In effect, this meant that the First and Second Estates, comprised almost unanimously of the nobility, could always outvote the Third Estate. Since 1614, the economic power of the Third Estate had increased dramatically; in 1788, the popular call was to double the number of representatives from the Third Estate so that they'd have equal voting power in comparison with the other two estates.

Louis initially declined to increase the number, but he finally gave in the waning days of 1788. The question of "doubling the Third Estate" was preventing the solution of the deepening financial crisis; with Louis's compromise, the Estates General met in May of 1789.

Louis, however, had vacillated on the question for too long. He had lost any support he had once had among the wealthy members of the Third Estate; in addition, the aristocracy had tried to solve the problem in its own way. The parlement of Paris conceded the doubling question in September, but then declared that all voting would be done by individual Estates, that is, each Estate would get one vote. That meant that the Third Estate could be outvoted two to one every time. Angry at the king and sickened by the efforts of the aristocracy to control the Assembly of the Estates General, all the members of the Third Estate walked out en masse when the Assembly met in Versailles. They were joined by some clergy, members of the First Estate, and they then declared themselves the National Assembly and the only legitimate legislative body of the country on June 17, 1789. They were fired by ideas ultimately derived from Rousseau, ideas about social contract and rights, and no person more eloquently defined the spirit of the National Assembly than the clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, who declared that the Third Estate was everything, had been treated as nothing, and wanted only to be something.
(Abbé Sieyes, What is the Third Estate?  (1788)) The rallying point was Rousseau's idea that the members of a nation are the nation itself; this is what legitimated the claims of the new National Assembly.

The National Assembly

The newly-formed National Assembly was led by Abbé Sieyès and one of the Nobles of the Robe, Honoré Riqueti. They met in a local tennis court when they were locked out of their typical meeting place and, on June 20, all the members of the National Assembly swore an oath not to disband until they had drawn up a new constitution for France: this is the famous Tennis Court Oath. (David, Tennis Court Oath (1789)) In an idea derived from Rousseau, they saw government as a creation of the people; when the social contract had been broken, then the people had a right to revoke that contract and set up a new government.

On June 27, Louis XVI gave into the National Assembly and ordered the members of the Estates General to join the new National Assembly. This is the date at which the French Revolution started.

Historians divide the Revolution into three stages. The first occurred between 1789 and 1792 and was mainly effected through the National Assembly. The main concern during this period was addressing the grievances that Louis had ordered each regional assembly to write up before the meeting of the Estates General. The second stage, beginning in the summer of 1792, saw the downfall of all the liberal, middle class leaders of the Revolution and the rise to power of radical revolutionaries. The radicals saw themselves as champions of the common person against the interests of both the aristocracy and the wealthy middle class. The radicals threw off all the vestiges of the old France when they executed Louis in September of 1792. The radicals were vicious and dictatorial; their days in power, known as the Reign of Terror, were a long, protracted effort to remake society from the ground up. The radicals were followed by a reaction in July of 1794 that threw the radicals out of power; the revolution reverted back to the moderate liberals of the middle class. The Revolution ended in November of 1799, when Abbée Sieyès championed the Counter-Revolutionary cause and invited Napoleon Bonaparte to help him seize the government.

The Capture of the Bastille

The early days of the Revolution were punctuated by three significant popular uprisings: the taking of the Bastille on July 14, the "Great Fear" of July and August, and the march on Versailles Palace on October 5. These were all dramatic and transforming events; in every case, they brought home the seriousness of the endeavor whenever it had become stalled and consequently restarted the process.

Events were happening quickly, and few people could believe that the monarch or the aristocracy would allow the process to continue. In addition, the unrest had resulted in dire shortages of bread; most French believed that this was a deliberate attempt by the aristocracy to starve out the Revolution. By June, most everyone was convinced that the king was poised on retaking the government by force.

Fearful of both the king and the poor, who were growing more violent with each passing day out of frustration and desperation, the electors of Paris, that is, the members of the Third Estate who could vote in the National Assembly, took matters into their own hands. These electors were modest people: trades people, craftsmen, small businessmen. They would eventually be called sans-culottes, because they didn't wear the breeches (culottes ) of the upper class (more on the sans-culottes when we talk about the radical revolution). They banded together and formed a new municipal government of Paris; on July 14, they marched to the Bastille. This structure was a medieval keep that served as both a prison and a warehouse for firearms and ammunition.

When the crowd arrived at the Bastille, they demanded arms and ammunition from the Governor of the Bastille. At first he refused, but as the mob grew larger, he ordered his soldiers to fire on the crowd. Ninety-eight were killed and the crowd, fierce for revenge, stormed the fortress, released the prisoners (five criminals and two madmen), decapitated the Governor, and distributed arms to the citizenry.

The taking of the Bastille was a transforming event; it, along with the establishment of revolutionary municipal governments across France, convinced the monarch and the aristocracy that the country fully supported the revolution. From this point onwards, there was no question in Louis's mind that the National Assembly should serve as the primary legislative body of France.

The Great Fear

Popular uprisings soon traveled the length and breadth of the nation; all throughout France, the people feared a counter-revolution by either the monarch or the aristocracy. This fear reached total panic at the end of June, and the peasantry all over the nation began to set fire to aristocratic houses, monasteries, and public records houses. These two months of panic in the countryside, called "Great Fear," inspired the National Assembly beginning on August 4 to completely disassemble the manorial system in which peasants were tied to landlords through an elaborate system of fees. It also inspired the Assembly to abolish the corvée and all tithing to the church. These days of reformative action in the Assembly, called the "August Days," abolished serfdom, aristocratic exemption from taxation, and effectively eliminated all class in France. By the end of August, all members of French society were equal under the law.

Declaration of the Rights of Man

Like Rousseau, the members of the National Assembly believed that the social contract underlying European government was fundamentally flawed since it was based on principles that protected only the wealthy and the aristocracy at the price of the rest of the nation. The new government, they insisted, would be founded on the correct principles of authority. These principles were drafted in a document called The Declaration of the Rights of Man (from Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (1789)) in August of 1789. This document was produced to provide the basic blueprint or ground rules of the new constitution.

The Declaration is based on principles derived from Rousseau, from the English Bill of Rights of 1688, and the Virginia Bill of Rights drafted in 1776. The fundamental argument of the Declaration is that all men are born with natural rights, such as liberty and property; government and authority were instituted by humans only to protect those rights. The new constitution, then, should be based entirely on this idea of protecting individual rights and equality.

Louis, however, refused to sanction the document, particularly since it seriously destroyed aristocratic privilege. However, a third popular uprising in October forced his hand. Faced with increasing shortages of bread, the women of Paris marched to Versailles on October 5 and demanded bread. When the crowd stayed the night, Louis agreed to ratify the Declaration. This was not good enough. The crowd stormed the palace and demanded that Louis return to Paris so that he could be more closely watched by the citizenry. On October 6, Louis and his family were escorted by the crowd back to Paris.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

In July of 1790, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. (Civil Constitution of the Clergy, (1790) (excerpt)) The effect of this legislation was to bring the constitution of ecclesiastical authority under the same principles governing the restructuring of government: authority is given by the people to protect their rights and property. The Civil Constitution legislated that all ecclesiastical offices would be elected offices and all people within those offices would be directly under the control of the civil government. The Church would only barely be subject to Rome; instead, it would become a French institution whose policy and direction would be subject to French, not Roman, interests.

In many ways, the Catholic Church was the source of pent-up hatred throughout France. There's no question that the upper officials of the church were hopelessly corrupt; they were all nobility, most held several offices at once, few cared about the regions under their charge, and they bled the peasantry dry in order to support their extravagant lifestyles. However, the secularization of the church in the Civil Constitution was perhaps one of the most powerful weapons that the Assembly could hand to the counter-revolutionary forces in France. Breaking off from Rome and demanding that clergy be subject to the people went against centuries of culture and world view in France; while the radical revolutionaries of 1792 believed that such habits of thought could be disposed of overnight, the respect for the church and its authorities was deeply ingrained in the character of the country and proved impossible to overcome.

The Constitution of 1791

In June of 1789, the National Assembly took a collective oath to draft a new civil constitution for France; they completed this task in 1791. The new constitution declared France to be a constitutional monarchy. Within this new government, all legislative powers would fall to a single Legislative Assembly, which alone had the power to declare war and raise taxes.

The Legislative Assembly would be made up of representatives elected by Electors, who themselves were elected by "active" citizens (an active citizen was a male citizen who paid annual taxes equal to the local wages paid for three days of labor). This meant that only half the citizens of France could vote and, in a country of twenty-five million people or so, only fifty thousand qualified to serve as either electors or members of the Legislative Assembly.

The monarch was allowed very few powers. He could temporarily stall legislation through a suspensive veto, but he could not veto any legislation permanently. The control of the army was taken out of his hands, and he had no authority over local governments. In addition, he could send no representatives to serve in the Legislative Assembly.

Economic Reforms

The activities of the National Assembly were nothing short of heroic, perhaps one of the greatest chapters in the history of collective creativity. The Assembly, however, was also faced with the daunting task of reforming the finances and economy of the country. Many of its measures, such as selling off confiscated church lands, did not cause much problems. Other measures, such as enclosing lands to encourage industrial sized agriculture, produced tremendous hardship on the peasantry. In addition, the revoking of guild laws—which protected various craftsmen by giving them a virtual monopoly over their trade—helped to spur industrial development and economic growth, but it also deprived many middle-class trades people of their livelihoods.

These were heady days. Government had been successfully decentralized and the country (partially) democratized. It was a revolution inspired by, led by, and ruled by the middle class; it was no wonder, then, that the Constitution and the economic reforms were, in the end, great windfalls for the middle class. For when Abbé Sieyès declared the Third Estate to be everything, he didn't necessarily mean that the whole of the Third Estate was everything. This oversight would drive a second, more radical stage in the Revolution.


From its beginning, the revolution was not universally accepted in France or in Europe in general. There were throughout France many who disagreed with the innovations of the Revolution—some were aristocrats whose privileges were threatened, but others were intellectuals and common people who supported the monarchy. A number of Europeans declared the revolution to be the future of Europe, and revolutionary talk became the rage among European intellectuals schooled in the thought of the philosophes . The bulk of Europeans, however, were repulsed by the revolution and sympathized with the plight of Louis XVI and his family. The most famous counter-revolutionary theoretical work was written by Edmund Burke in 1790: Reflections on the Revolution in France. (Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, excerpt, (1791) short excerpts; ) In this work, he declared that human beings were not abstract entities, but products of tradition and history. Therefore, one could not throw out centuries of history and remake government from the ground up based on abstract principles such as "rights." Failure to take account of history, in Burke's view, would end up tearing French society into pieces. Until 1792, however, this counter-revolutionary sentiment was just that—sentiment.

It soon became clear, however, that the French Revolution posed a major threat to other European states. The revolution itself threatened to spill over into neighboring states, and the French were actively encouraging this; the European powers also worried about having a republican state in their midst, one that was tremendously powerful and committed to the notion of exporting this new government into surrounding territories. In addition, some of the royal houses were related to the Bourbons or to Marie Antoinette. In particular, Leopold II of Austria was committed to restoring his sister, Marie Antoinette, and her husband to the throne.

On August 27, 1791, Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. This Declaration committed the two countries to restoring the monarchy in France and declared war on the country. By 1792, Britain had joined the war. This counter-revolutionary alliance would light the fire beneath the Revolution, and it would, as a result, enter a new, more radical terrifying, stage.

Radical Revolution

In the summer of 1792, disaffection with the Revolution was growing among the lower classes, especially the peasantry. The Revolution, after all, had been staged by the middle class and the wealthier members of the Third Estate; most of the reforms, especially the economic reforms, benefited only these two groups. In many ways, life had become harder for the lower classes. Agricultural enclosure threw many peasants off their farms and into the arms of starvation; economic reforms had spurred tremendous growth in industries, but had also resulted in wildly fluctuating prices and rampant inflation. You might say that bread was the fuel that fired the Revolution, for just about every major turning point got its start in some civil unrest over the price of bread.

However, this wasn't enough to push the Revolution into its radical phase. Almost from its beginning, the French Revolution frightened and dismayed the other powers of Europe. From the very moment that the National Assembly declared itself the legislative body of France, revolts broke out in countries such as Germany, and prominent intellectuals all over Europe began calling for the overthrow of the aristocracy. Fearing the consequences should the revolution spill over the borders of France, the European powers soon launched an uncoordinated counter-revolution. In August of 1791, Austria and Prussia declared that order, the rights of the monarch, and the privileges of the aristocracy should be restored in France. By the summer of 1792, it looked like all of Europe was ready to overthrow the revolution.

The Girondists

The Assembly was controlled by a moderate faction called the Girondists, so-called because most of them came from the Gironde Department, which oversaw mercantile activity. Anxious to secure their political position, they rose with the popular tide and declared Austria's and Prussia's declaration to be a threat to national security and declared war on April 20, 1792.

The war, however, went very badly. By August of 1792, Prussian and Austrian forces had not only crossed the French border, but were heading straight for Paris. Their purpose was to restore the monarchy, and it looked like the days of the Revolution were coming to an end. The Austrians were motivated in part by Marie Antoinette; the Emperor of Austria, Leopold II, was her brother. Although Louis seemed to vacillate, Marie was determined to see the Revolution fail. To this end, she had plotted counter-revolution with Leopold and even tried to escape with Louis in June of 1791. They almost made it, but were caught near the border at Varennes and forced to turn back. The French knew, then, that the monarch was committed to counter-revolution, and they effectively turned him into a prisoner.

With the Austrians and the Prussians headed for Paris, the population flew into a frenzy. Convinced that the king was behind the invasion, a Paris mob attacked the royal palace at the Tuilleries; Louis fled to the Legislative Assembly for asylum. The hours, however, were winding down. Shortly after the crowd invaded the palace, radicals seized the municipal government of Paris and declared it to be a Commune. They then persuaded the Assembly to hand the king and his family over to them for punishment.

The Jacobins

Keep in mind what the situation was. It looked like the revolution was almost over. The Prussians and the Austrians were within a hair's breadth of restoring the monarch to the throne. The king had made obvious his allegiance to the counter-revolution rather than the Legislative Assembly. The revolution had benefited only the middle and wealthy classes of the Third Estate. The poor were worse off. The moderates had mismanaged the war. That's the stage. Here's the play.

All these affairs led to the downfall of the Girondists; power now fell to a faction called the Jacobins, named after the political club they belonged. The Jacobins were more radical than the Girondists, but they were still relatively moderate. Unlike the Girondists, they were strict equalitarians; that is, they wanted to completely do away with all aspects of social distinction. They also believed that the vote should be universal and that government should provide for the welfare of the poor.

The Jacobins, as soon as they rose to power, called for a national convention. Members of this convention would be elected by a universal vote, and the job of the new convention would be to dismantle the constitution of 1791 in favor of a republican constitution, that is, a constitution without a monarch. The members of the convention were elected in September of 1792, and the convention they made up became the effective national government of France until 1794. On September 20, the French successfully turned back the Prussian army at Valmy, and on September 21, the Convention met. Its first act was declare France a republic and completely abolished the monarchy. The Revolution, it seemed, was back on track.

The character of the Revolution had changed, however. During the first week of September, the Paris Commune executed all of the prisoners in the city jails, about twelve hundred people, in public executions. Even though most of these prisoners were simply criminals, they were declared counter-revolutionaries and the Parisian crowds ate it up. While the Jacobins, slightly more radical than the Girondists, controlled the government, the rise of the Jacobins also saw the rise of another, even more radical group, the sans-culottes .

The Sans-culottes

The sans-culottes (so named because they didn't wear upper class breeches or culottes ) were the common people of Paris. They were working people: shop owners, trades people, artisans, and even factory workers. They, like the poor, were among the prominent losers of the first, more moderate revolution. While the middle class and wealthy classes benefited greatly from the revolution, the sans-culottes saw their livelihoods disappearing and inflation driving them to bare subsistence. Of all the groups of France, it is the hopes, dreams, and views of the sans-culottes that drove the radical revolution from 1792 to 1794.

The desires of the sans-culottes were simple: subsistence was a right for all people; inequality of any kind was to be abolished; the aristocracy and the monarchy was to be abolished; property was not to be completely eliminated, but to be shared in communal groups. These ideas were, on the whole, far more radical than what the Jacobins had in mind. However, more radical Jacobins sympathized with the sans-culotte and began to work with them. This radical group of Jacobins were called the Mountain, because they took the highest seats in the assembly (which was held in a multi-tiered hall).

As the convention came more under the control of the Mountain and the sans-culottes , it turned its attention to doing away with the monarchy by starting at the source—Louis XVI. In December, 1792, the Convention put Louis XVI on trial. The Girondists and more moderate Jacobins struggled to save his life, but the Convention narrowly voted to execute him. On January 21, 1793, he was beheaded.

In February, 1793, the Convention then declared war on Great Britain. It then declared war on Holland. Then it declared war on Spain. The Prussia drove French armies from Belgium. Then a revolution broke out in the Vendée, led by royalist and aristocratic sympathizers. France was at war with the whole European world, including itself, and it all fell into the lap of the moderate Girondists.

The downfall of the Girondists accelerated the radical revolution, which had been brewing and boiling in the upper tiers of the convention. By the spring of 1793, the Mountain and the sans-culottes had effectively taken over the Convention, and in April they began to take measures to protect the new Republic. This new phase would produce a level of cruelty and fear unprecedented in European history: the Reign of Terror.

The Reign of Terror

The "Reign of Terror" lasted from September of 1793 to July 1794; these nine months make up the events we normally associate with the French Revolution. The Terror, however, was a relatively brief episode in a process that was begun in 1789 and really didn't conclude until Napoleon's coup d'état in 1799. Simply put, the Terror was a dictatorship in part by the Convention, but mainly by a group of leaders called the Committee of Public Safety. Its hallmark event, of course, was the massive extermination of counter-revolutionaries and so-called enemies of the Republic; over forty thousand Frenchmen lost their lives to the guillotine in these years. (Abbé Sièyes, when asked what his great accomplishment was during the months of terror, replied simply, "I survived"). Despite the sheer volume of executions, almost all of which were done without due process, the dictatorship of the Terror were facing a hopeless situation and, to their credit, they turned the tide. It is almost certain that the Revolution would not have survived but for the dictators during the Reign of Terror who managed, through reorganizing the army and ruthlessly pursuing internal dissidents, to secure the French Republic (for its eventual downfall, of course, at the hands of Napoleon).

This is what the Jacobins faced in September, 1793. All of Europe was at war with France; the alliance between England, Holland, and Spain, was particularly threatening. The French army, though it had turned back the Prussians, was now losing again. Counter-revolution had begun in earnest in France; a monarchist revolt in the Vendée threatened to spill over into the rest of the country. But the conservative counter-revolution wasn't all that worried the Jacobins. Although the Jacobins were fairly radical, in that they saw themselves as representing the oppressed lower classes, they were still middle class and still primarily represented the interests of the middle class. Arrayed on the left were even more radical agitators who were called the enragées, and were led by a fiery journalist named Jacques Hébert. These radicals were even more devoted to the ideas of Rousseau, particularly his condemnation of property as a fundamental perversion of moral human society; their thought, with some exaggeration, came much closer to what we would call communism.

The Convention completely reorganized the army and did so with brilliance and effectiveness. In desperation, they instituted a draft on all males capable of fighting and hastily put together over a dozen armies. By the middle of 1794, these ill-trained and poorly led armies managed to secure French borders; by 1795, they conquered southern Holland and part of Spain and Switzerland. By 1796, they had effectively won the war.

At home, the Convention delayed its creation of a democratic government because of the wars abroad and the insurgencies at home. Instead they created a Committee of Public Safety, and as the months of Terror passed, the Convention increasingly transferred its powers to this small committee. By the summer of 1794, the national government of France was almost solely in the hands of this committee.

The committee was made up of twelve men and particularly led by three, the most famous names in the French Revolution: Jean-Paul Marat (1743-1793), Georges Jacques Danton (1759-1794), and Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794).

Marat was a prominent physician who had been a radical revolutionary from the very start; because of his radicalism, he was soon oppressed and hunted down and spent part of the Revolution hiding in sewers. From the sewers he contracted an incurable skin disease which required that he bathe constantly to ease the pain; it was while he was bathing, that a Girondist extremist named Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in the early months of the Terror.

Danton, on the other hand, only rose to prominence in the Revolution when the Jacobins seized control of the Convention. It was Danton that set up the revolutionary tribunals both in Paris and throughout the country, and who also helped to engineer the transfer of power from the Convention to the Committee. The revolutionary tribunals had as their charge the trials and executions of the "enemies" of the Republic. What actually constituted an "enemy" was never fully defined, and as the tribunals spread from Paris to the countryside, they became a flash point for popular resentments and old wrongs. The tribunals first beheaded members of the aristocracy, including Marie Antoinette, in October of 1793. Soon, however, the heads of Girondists began to fall from the guillotines, then the sans-culottes , then the enragées, then opposing members in the Jacobin party, and eventually a pile of innocent victims. All told, by the end of the Terror, far more peasants, laborers, republicans, and democrats lost their lives to the tribunals than aristocrats or monarchists. It is these tribunals and their executions, largely accomplished through a beheading machine called a guillotine, that we popularly associate with the Revolution—the spread of the tribunals, however, was only a brief chapter in the Revolution's history. Danton himself was eventually declared an enemy of the Republic by one of these tribunals and was beheaded in April of 1794.

For sheer power and creativity, the most conspicuous of the radical leaders of the Committee was Maximilien Robespierre, a man of incredibly passionate principle; however, like all people who live by principle alone, he was ruthless and heartless in his pursuit of morality and principle. He, like other extremists, was passionately attached to the ideas of Rousseau and the creation of a society free from inequality. He had little to do with building the machinery of the terror—that was largely due to the perverse genius of Georges Danton—he nevertheless was responsible for the amplification of this machinery across the face of France. It was Robespierre who gave the Terror its character, for he believed that virtue was ineffective without terror and he openly advocated terror as a political virtue. To this end, he expanded the powers of the tribunals and led them against other leaders in his government. On June 10, he managed to legislate the Law of 22 Prairial (see the discussion of the French calendar below), which allowed tribunals to convict accused enemies without hearing any evidence whatsoever .

Both the Convention and the Committee saw themselves as building a new destiny for humanity. They believed that they were going to replace the old, property-based, monarchy and aristocracy with a new, equality-based republic of civic virtue. France would, under their guidance, become the Republic of Virtue, and it would rebuild society from the ground up in order to build this republic. For the old system was founded on a bad social contract and bad foundations, such as property, Christianity, and social distinction.

The first move, then, was to eliminate Christianity. They first began by throwing the old Christian calendar, which, though based on the Roman calendar, set its dates from the (supposed) death of Christ. In October, 1793, shortly after seizing control of France, the Convention threw out the old calendar and replaced it with a Revolutionary calendar. On this new calendar, the first day of the calendar was the first day of the Revolution. Each month consisted of thirty days, and the old Roman names were replaced by names describing the season (since July is hot, for instance, it became "Thermidor"). In order to fully de-christianize the calendar, they threw out the old sabbath system and made every tenth day a holiday rather than every seventh.

The Christian religion had to go completely. In November of 1793, the Convention founded a Religion of Reason and renamed Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, the "Temple of Reason". While all this went over more or less smoothly in Paris, the results in the countryside were less than stellar. The Convention created a group of officials, called "mission deputies," to enforce the de-christianization of the French republic. Mostly this consisted of closing down churches, but it sometimes meant persecution and execution. Some priests were even forced to marry (and, what the historians don't tell you, women were forced to marry priests—the coercion functioned in both directions). Perhaps more than anything, the efforts to de-christianize France dramatically eroded support for the radical revolution throughout the countryside.

Eventually, Robespierre decided that the religion of Reason was a bit too difficult for the average person to grasp, so he changed the new French religion into the "Cult of the Supreme Being."

On July 27, Robespierre was arrested as an enemy of the Republic and, like Danton before him, died at the hands of his own bloody machinery of justice along with twenty-one other radical leaders of the Convention. The Terror came to an end. While historians point to the de-christianization of France and the sheer bloodiness of the Terror as motives for a counter-reaction, in reality the Terror came to an end because it succeeded so well. The tribunals had managed to execute so many people—probably forty thousand people—so efficiently that all the uprisings, both radical and monarchist, had been effectively snuffed out by the summer of 1794. The Revolution entered its third and final stage, a return to the original, more moderate Revolution called the Thermidorean Reaction.

The Thermidorean Reaction

In 1794, during the month of July, a month that the French had renamed "Thermidor," the radical leaders of the Convention, including Robespierre, were exterminated or powerless. The new, more moderate Convention instantly repealed the Law of 22 Prairial, freed political prisoners, and stripped the Committee of Public Safety of all its powers. The radical Jacobins, fearful that they might suffer the same headless fate as their political enemies in the preceding year, all went into hiding. As the Revolution turned back to middle class concerns, monarchists and priests returned back to France and added, with their conservatism, even more momentum to the Thermidorean reaction.

Under the leadership of the moderate Revolutionaries, the Convention finally finished its task of drafting a Constitution in 1795. France officially became a democratic republic; all adult males who could read and write were given the vote. They would vote for electors who, in their turn, would vote for the members of the primary legislative body of the country. The system, more or less, looked identical to the constitution drafted in 1791; its only substantial difference was the lack of a king.

The Constitution replaced the monarch, who traditionally controlled the executive powers of government, with a Directory of five men chosen by the legislative assembly. The Directory was largely controlled by middle class business-men and speculators, many of whom had gained their wealth from the revolutionary wars of the preceding years. While they were deeply despised throughout France (and are still despised by historians), nevertheless, they did manage to hold onto the revolution despite threats from both the right and left.

In March of 1797, France held its first democratic elections. The results were a bit surprising. The French voted in an overwhelming amount of constitutional monarchists—leaders who wanted to see the return of a (weakened) monarchy. This, of course, would not do. So, in September of 1797, the Directory simply declared the elections to be invalid. Far from solving the problem, France fell into chaos and uprisings. The Directory called on a brilliant young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had achieved astonishing military victories in Italy and the Middle East, to help bail them out. The leader of the Directory, Abbé Sièyes, invited Bonaparte to help overthrow the government and set up a triumvirate with himself and one other Director. On November 9, 1799, Bonaparte arrived in Paris and on 19 Brumaire (November 10), 1799, Bonaparte and his troops expelled the legislators from Paris. In December, 1799, Napoleon and his colleagues legislated a new constitution, one that modeled the French Republic on the old Roman Republic. Executive powers were to be held by a consulate of three men; the legislature was still democratically elected (pleasing the democrats), the Council of State was modeled on Louis XIV's Council (pleasing the monarchists), and power was divided among branches of government (pleasing the republicans). In reality, the consulate was a more or less disguised dictatorship under Bonaparte himself. The Revolution, and the eighteenth century, was at an end.


There are few individuals in history that have captured the imagination of their contemporaries and of historians; perhaps the most compelling of these figures is Napoleon Bonaparte. Both historians and his contemporaries were and are a little too captivated by this figure; world history and world civilizations like to linger over this man, often at the price of dealing sufficiently with other aspects of world history. It is perhaps best to step back a little and look at this figure with a little less imagination and captivation; while his story is truly impressive, an overly solicitous concern with the details of the history blind us to the real changes he wrought and the way he, and his actions, transformed the European imagination. 

Napoleon Bonaparte

Perhaps the aspect of Bonaparte's life that most captivated his contemporaries and historians follow was his humble beginnings. Here, like some Greek tragedy, is the story of the rise from the bottom of a strong-willed and brilliant man whose flaws eventually cause him to fall from power. The reality, of course, is much more complex than the romance associated with the story. Napoleon's rise to power was, indeed, impressive, and was predicated on both his military capabilities and his strength of will. Other forces were at work, however, as they were at work in his downfall as well. Let's not forget, that Napoleon's humble beginnings were, though real, largely a creation of the personal mythology he built around himself.

He was born in Corsica—an Italian— in 1769; France had annexed Corsica in 1768, so he was officially a French citizen. Although his parents were not extremely wealthy, they were nobility. While Napoleon built up around himself a mythology of low origins, he was still higher up on the social scale than the overwhelming majority of Europeans.

He attended French schools and, at the age of sixteen, became an artillery officer in the French army in 1785. When the Revolution started, he was an ardent supporter of the revolutionary and then the Jacobin cause. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Toulon and was appointed general; when the Jacobins were thrown from power in the following summer, he only barely hung on to his commission. Napoleon, however, became a national hero when he crushed the Austrian and Sardinian armies in Italy and brought the war with the alliance to a close in October of 1797 by negotiating the Treaty of Campo.

He then turned his eyes to fighting the British, the only country still actively pursuing the war against France. Fearing an outright attack on Great Britain, he turned instead to capturing territory in Egypt from the Ottoman Empire. In this way, he could disrupt British trade through the Mediterranean. When Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated the French Navy at the Battle of Aboukir on August 1, 1798, Napoleon's invasion was successfully thwarted. Not only did the invasion of Egypt fail, it also brought Russia into war with France, for Russian itself was turning its eyes on acquiring territory in northern Africa.

The Consulate (1799-1804)

This was the state of affairs when Abbée Sièyes invited Napoleon to Paris to effect a coup d'etat and replace the Directory with a new triumvirate. The new constitution of France created a consular government of three consuls; one of these consuls, however, was First Consul. That role, of course, was assumed by Napoleon; it was, more or less, a virtual dictatorship.

The consulate of Napoleon was in many ways an astonishing success. He rigorously pursued the welfare of the country by tirelessly trying to end all the conflict within and without France. In a steady succession of treaties, he made peace with Austria and then with Britain. By 1802, all the wars were over, concluded in the Treaty of Amiens with Britain.

Napoleon, however, worked hard to heal the wounds of over a decade of revolution. He allowed all types of political refugees back into the country, and appointed both radical republicans and royalist aristocrats to his government. His greatest act of reconciliation, however, was allowing the Catholic church back into France in his concordat with Pope Pius VII. The church was allowed back in, however, on Napoleon's terms. Clergy which had supported radical or monarchist uprisings were dismissed, confiscated church lands were to remain confiscated, and the principle of religious freedom, part and parcel of the Revolutionary constitutions, was to remain in force. It was because of these magnificent efforts at reconciliation and peace that the French voted him "Consul for Life" in 1802; he promptly produced a new constitution to reflect this change.

In France, Napoleon pursued the dream of centralized power with an efficiency that hadn't been seen since the days of Louis XIV. He centralized the administration of the country and made all parts of that administration directly under the national government's control; although he was an egalitarian, he was a true follower of absolutist principles. Nevertheless, his reforms installed real equality into French government; for instance, the tax system he set up made no allowances for wealth or station. In addition, he ruthlessly stamped out any monarchist rebellions; and, finally, in 1804, his armies crossed over into Baden and arrested the Bourbon duke of Enghien, the heir to the French throne. With the Duke of Enghien executed, the monarchist counter-revolution effectively died.

The Napoleonic Code (1804)

Of all the reforms of Napoleon's consulate, the historically most significant was the legislation of the Civil Code of 1804,(The Napoleonic Code ) alternatively called the Napoleonic Code or the Code of Napoleon. This legislation sought to make French law completely uniform. It was based on two ideas: that all men are equal under the law (but not women) and all people have a right to property. In the former case, the code eliminated all privileges from the laws, including tax laws. In the latter case, the code spelled out various contractual laws to ensure the inviolability of private property.

The Empire (1804-1814)

For all practical purposes, the constitution of 1802 had officially installed Napoleon as a lifelong dictator. Along with the incredibly efficient centralization of power, Napoleon had become monarch of France in all but the title. Needless to say, not a few people were displeased by this turn of events. There were numerous plots against Napoleon's life—plots he used to his advantage for they allowed him to move against his opponents with a ruthless severity. In 1804, Napoleon announced his intention to be crowned Emperor of France; by this move, his position would become hereditary and so obviate all plots against his life. You may kill me, he was saying, but you won't kill the institution.

He produced yet another constitution—think about this: Napoleon was responsible for no fewer than three constitutions for France— which established the imperiate. The French voted for this constitution with an overwhelming majority and Napoleon was crowned Napoleon I, Emperor of France in 1804.
(David, Consecration of Napoleon as Emperor (1806))

Now this was a mighty strange turn of events. The counter-revolution had been a miserable failure. However, all during the wars with France and afterwards, European governments began to steadily change. During the imperiate of Napoleon, they changed even more dramatically. The principles of the French Revolution slowly diffused outwards in Europe; governments began, quietly and infinitesimally, to adopt some of the principles of government forged in the French Revolution. This, of course, is why the Revolution is so important to European history even though it was a total failure in France. In addition, Napoleon was highly responsible for this, for France controlled many European territories, such as Italy, Germany, and Holland, even though these territories were not under the direct control of the Empire. It was in these territories that the principles of the revolution were most thoroughly adopted, such as the abandonment of privilege and the ideas of equality under the law.

Napoleon's vision had now gone beyond France. What he saw in the future—a future he would build—was a united Europe, another Roman Empire with Paris, and Napoleon, at its center. For this reason, Napoleon turned back to Roman culture and instituted Roman architecture, art, and sculpture all over France to reflect the new coming order. He had one significant obstacle in the way, however: Great Britain. In order to bring Britain to its knees, he instituted the Continental System,
(Napoleon's  Continental System, The Berlin Decree (1806); ) which forbade the importation of British goods into Europe. This ban, however, didn't work, in part because of the power of the British navy, which itself carried out an effective blockade of trade against France. After Britain declared war in 1805, its most significant victory was the defeat of the French and Spanish navies in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805. This engagement, led on the British side by Admiral Nelson, effectively destroyed the naval power of Napoleon and guaranteed that an invasion of Britain would not take place. It also solidified Britain's dominance over world trade.

With each passing day, however, Napoleon was looking more and more like a monarch chipped from the same mold as the Bourbon monarchs of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He freely made his brothers and sisters monarchs of various European territories he controlled and, when he divorced his wife, Empress Josephine, he then married a Habsburg princess. And, in his vision of a united Europe, he threatened to bring all European states under this new, nepotistic, and efficient monarchy.

Fearing the monarchical pretensions and territorial greediness of Napoleon I, European powers banded together in 1805 to contain French ambitions. This alliance, led by Britain, but including Russia, Prussia, and Austria, was a miserable failure. In battle after battle, they were crushed by the French, and Napoleon looked more and more invincible. When Napoleon defeated the Austrians at the battle of Austerlitz, they were forced to cede all of Italy north of Rome to him—he then crowned himself king of Italy. On July 7, 1807, after defeating both the Prussian and then the Russian armies, Napoleon signed the Treaty of Tilsit. This treaty allowed Napoleon to keep territory seized from Prussia and Russia, required the two countries to participate in the Continental System and boycott all trade with Britain, and required that Prussia become an open ally of France.

In 1808, however, Napoleon invaded Spain. He wanted both Spain and Portugal to become part of the Continental System; he overthrew the king of Spain and put his brother Joseph on the throne. The Spanish, however, would have none of it. They resented his presence in Spain, his abolition of the Inquisition, and his control of the church and began to fight back. Thus began the Wars of Liberation. The Spanish War went very badly for the French; the Spanish, hopelessly outgunned, fought using guerilla tactics which the French were unaccustomed to. The war dragged on until 1813 when the Spanish, with significant help from the British under the command of Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, drove the French over the Spanish border and back into France.

The alliance with Russia broke down very quickly after its formation in 1807. Napoleon had forced Russia into the Continental System, but Russia had fallen into a severe economic crisis as a result. Much of the Russian economy was based on the exporting of raw goods, such as timber and grain, to Britain in exchange for manufactured goods. In order to avert economic collapse, Tsar Alexander I allowed trade to proceed with Britain, despite the protests with France. Four years of this insubordination was too much for Napoleon; in 1811, with the war still going badly in Spain, he assembled an army of six hundred thousand men and invaded Russian in 1812 with the sole purpose of punishing the tsar. As he marched through Russia, the Russian army refused to stand against him but continually retreated deeper and deeper into Russia; Napoleon had expected to prosecute the war primarily near the border and then march unopposed to Moscow. When he reached Moscow, the Russian army simply allowed him to occupy the capital, which they promptly burned down. After a month of idling in the capital, Napoleon set back for France. It was, however, too late. The Russian winter settled on his return march with a vengeance. His troops could barely make any progress through mountains of snow, acres of mud, and flooded rivers. Mounted Cossacks would periodically fly out of the blizzards and pick off the hapless soldiers. One by one they died off from cold and starvation—they died while they marched, they died at night by the campfire, and some simply sat down in the snow and waited for death to come. When Napoleon crossed over into Germany on December 13, over three hundred thousand men had died out of the original six hundred thousand. Almost all had perished in the deadly cold that blanketed Napoleon's retreat.

Napoleon's staggering losses breathed new life into the Wars of Liberation. Fired by the possibility that Napoleon had been irreparably weakened, Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia fell once more to the attack. Most of the war was prosecuted in Germany, and Napoleon's forces met their decisive defeat at the Battle of Nations in 1813 near Leipzig. Wellington marched his army into France from Spain, and in 1814, allied armies crossed over into eastern France from Germany. Napoleon eventually retreated to Paris where, on March 31, Tsar Alexander I and King Frederick William III of Prussia marched into the city. They forced Napoleon to abdicate and exiled him to Elba, a small island off of Italy.

The Congress of Vienna

With Napoleon gone, there was little reason to hold the coalition together. The nations of the coalition, however, recognized that they would not be able to pursue their interests until the French "problem" had been solved. Before the war ended in 1814, the coalitions allies had signed the Treaty of Chaumont on March 9. This treaty stipulated that the Bourbons be restored to the French monarchy and that France return to pre-1792 borders. Of course, this was only a document of principles. Working out the mechanics of this treaty fell to the Congress of Vienna after the abdication of Napoleon.

The Congress met in September of 1814 and continued until November of 1815. Almost all the heads of European states were present, but the Congress was more or less run by Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria. Uppermost on the participants' minds was preventing France from expanding beyond its borders ever again. To achieve this, the members of the Congress produced a series of "buffer" states around France, such as the Netherlands. For the most part, however, Europe remained divided into the states that Napoleon had established; the most significant change that Napoleon had effected was the elimination of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Congress ratified that dissolution, and the states of the Holy Roman Empire disappeared into other entities. Finally, the Congress of Vienna fully ratified the notion of monarchy and thoroughly rejected any republican or democratic governments in Europe. They installed Louis XVIII, the brother of Louis XVI, as King of France.

The Hundred Days

He was down but he was not out. On March 1, 1815, Napoleon returned to Paris to cheering crowds. His army was still loyal to him, and Louis, fearful of his life, fled Paris. The alliance had started to bicker among itself, but this unexpected turn of events stunned them into action. Napoleon instantly went on the move, marching into the Low Countries of Belgium. There he met the allied army—which had been cobbled together in the greatest haste—under the command of Wellington at Waterloo. On June 18, the coalition forces dealt Napoleon a final and resounding defeat. Barely over a hundred days after his triumphant return, Napoleon was utterly defeated and was exiled to St. Helena, a dreary island in the South Atlantic where he lived out his days, fat and powerless, until 1821.

He would leave as his final legacy, this small man who straddled two centuries, the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth, and who straddled two worlds, the world of monarchical Europe and the world of modern Europe, several lasting legacies. Despite his downfall, his administrative and legal reforms remained in place in France and would eventually serve as a model for other European governments, particularly the Napoleonic code. He created almost single-handedly the modern, centralized bureaucratic state with state-run police and public educational systems. Moreover, with the Congress of Vienna, the concept of "legitimacy" became the predominant mode of European relationships. The principle was introduced by Great Britain at the Congress in order to prevent retaliation against France; ultimately it became the argument for restoring the monarchy. The restoration of the monarchy, however, allowed France to retain its traditional borders. The entire system was based on a concept of balance and stability. No state in Europe should be allowed to gain too much territorial power; in place of aggression, the Congress hoped to create a diplomatic rule—that of territorial legitimacy—that would guide international relations. Europe had transformed itself from a set of absolutist monarchies into an international state system.