The French Revolution (1789–1799), was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France that had a major impact on France and indeed all of Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years. Old ideas about tradition and hierarchy were overthrown by new Enlightenment principles of equality.
''After the revolution, France was a much unhappier place,'' Mr. Schama says over lunch near the Harvard campus. ''And I'm not merely talking about the liberal aristocrats who took flight or died on the guillotine, or about the brief dictatorship of the Terror. I'm thinking of all the people I'm accused of paying no attention to at all - the peasants, those who were suffering from poverty and high rents and high taxation. The revolution did nothing for these people.
The French Revolution did not directly produce the 19th century ideologies known as socialism or communism. But the Revolution did provide an intellectual and social environment in which these ideologies, and their spokesmen, could flourish.
One of the most fascinating and haunting aspects of the French Revolution is that no one was spared from its gory violence. There was no effort to shield women and children's eyes from the heads that lolled at the base of the guillotine.
Early in 1793 Austria, Prussia, Spain, the United Provinces, and Great Britain formed the first of seven coalitions that would oppose France over the next 23 years. In response to reverses at the hands of the First Coalition, the Revolutionary government declared a levy en masse, by which all Frenchmen were placed at the disposal of the army.
Largely pushed forward by a crisis brought on by a war that began in 1792 against Prussia and Austria, the French Revolution took a dramatic turn that climaxed with the beheading of King Louis XVI and the abandonment of Christianity in favor of a new state religion based on reason. The French Revolution became far more radical than the American Revolution.
During the unrest of 1789, on July 14 a mob approached the Bastille to demand the arms and ammunition stored there, and, when the force guarding the structure resisted, the attackers captured the prison, releasing the seven prisoners held there. The taking of the Bastille signaled the beginning of the French Revolution, and it thus became a symbol of the end of the ancien régime.
The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite. Known as the Great Fear (“la Grande peur”), the agrarian insurrection hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789, signing what the historian Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order.”
It may well be that the collapse of the old regime was the consequence of other factors - economic problems, social unrest, conflicting ambitions of groups and individuals - but in the unfolding of the Revolution, what was thought, what was said, and what was advocated, was expressed in terms and categories that came from political theorists of the Enlightenment.
The nature of the internal affairs in France made it an ideal stage for a revolution to take place. The deteriorating economy as the result of fiscal mismanagement and the long years of feudal oppression had long been testing the public’s patience.
In order to create funds for the war and to buy the weapons, the King Louis XVI kept on increasing the taxes which further added burden on the third estate as discussed in the other section. This lead to French revolution as the poor peasants could not cope up with theses taxes and could not do anything about it as they had no voice. They wanted to have a say in as to how the country should be run.
The American and French Revolutions were fought several years and an ocean apart. However, they feature enough similarities that some people initially consider them “mirror struggles.”