Chapter 17 European Revolutions of Society and State, 1714-1815

In 1789[i] hunger, the burden of heavy taxes, a government financial crisis, and the growing demands of ordinary Frenchmen for a voice in government led to revolution and the end of absolute monarchy in France. Confronted by internal chaos and external invasion, as the other monarchs of Europe moved to restore the ancien regime in France, in January 1793[ii] the revolutionary government executed king Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, as traitors and "enemies of the state." One participant left an account of the dramatic moment of no return in the revolution - the execution of the king, "God's Anointed" - and the awed reaction of the crowd witnessing it:

"They dragged [the king] under the axe of the guillotine, which with one stroke severed his head from his body. All this passed in a moment. The youngest of the guards, who seemed about eighteen, immediately seized the head, and showed it to the people as he walked round the scaffold . . .  . At first an awful silence prevailed; at length some cries of 'Vive la République!' ('Long live the republic!') were heard. By degrees the voices multiplied, and in less than ten minutes this cry, a thousand times repeated became the universal shout of the multitude, and every hat was in the air."           

Within four years, the French people had completely overthrown the principle of government based on divine right monarchy, hereditary aristocracy, and royal absolutism. In its place they had established the principle of government rooted in the sovereignty of the people, the constitutional and impersonal rule of law, and the "natural rights" and equality before the law of all citizens. 

In part, the French revolutionaries were following the example set a decade earlier by British colonists in North America. In 1776,[iii] thirteen of Britain's North American colonies had revolted against a home government they increasingly viewed as tyrannical and unrepresentative of the peoples' interests. After more than six years[iv] of fighting, they had not only established an entirely new form of representative and constitutional government rooted in Enlightenment principles, but had also founded a new nation.

Both the American and French Revolutions were part of a new spirit of political and social transformation that had begun to sweep through much of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries as people began to apply the methods and principles of the new science not just to understanding the natural world, but also to understanding humanity. Before the century was over, the ideas these intellectuals developed, known collectively as the Enlightenment, would lay the foundations for what we know today as the modern world.

 

As the discoveries of the Scientific Revolution were popularized, many literate Europeans began to adopt a more rational view of the world in a period that became known as the Enlightenment. From an essentially static conception of the nature of the universe and of human beings themselves, Europeans began to consider the possibility that individuals could actually improve both themselves and the world around them. Such notions of improvement and "progress" soon inspired revolution. In North America, colonists declared their independence from Great Britain; in France, the people rose in revolt against the absolute monarchy of the Bourbon dynasty. Under Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Revolution soon spread throughout Europe. As Bonaparte conquered most of Europe he carried the seeds of the French revolution with him - soon all Europe had been affected by exposure to both revolutionary ideals and French imperialism.

 

Chronology

1740  Frederick the Great becomes king of Prussia

1748  Montesquieu publishes The Spirit of Laws

1763 European powers agree to peace ending the Seven Years’ War

1776  Colonists in North America declare their independence from Britain

1789  French citizens storm the Bastile

1793  Louis XVI executed by revolutionary government

1799  Napoleon takes control of France

1815  Napoleon defeated at Battle of Waterloo