5 Steps to a 5: AP European History 2024 - Bartolini-Salimbeni B., Petersen W., Arata K. 2023

STEP 4 Review the Knowledge You Need to Score High
17 The French Revolution and Empire


Summary: In France in 1789, bourgeois representatives of the Third Estate, influenced by the Enlightenment, launched a revolution aimed at curbing the power and privilege of the nobility and clergy and establishing a constitutional monarchy. This chapter reviews the various phases of the French Revolution as it moved further to the left toward the Reign of Terror and then back to the right (Thermidor). It also describes the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte and the creation of a Europe-wide French Empire.


Key Terms:

Image Bourgeoisie A term for the merchant and commercial classes of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France. In Marxist social critique, the class that owns the means of production and exploits wage laborers.

Image Ancien Régime (also Old Regime) The traditional social and political hierarchy of eighteenth-century France.

Image Estates-General The representative body of eighteenth-century France. Members representing each of the three Estates met to hear the problems of the realm and royal requests for new taxes. In return, they were allowed to present a list of their own concerns and proposals, called cahiers, to the Crown.

Image National Assembly The name taken by the representatives of the Third Estate on June 17, 1789, declaring themselves to be the legislative body of France. This event is often seen as the beginning of the French Revolution’s moderate phase.

Image “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” A declaration adopted by the National Assembly of France on August 27, 1789, espousing individual rights and liberties for all citizens.

Image Sans-culottes The working people (bakers, shopkeepers, artisans, and manual laborers) who asserted their will in the radical phase of the French Revolution (1791—1794). They were characterized by their long working pants, hence, sans-culottes (literally “without short pants”).

Image Girondins Active during the National Assembly, the Girondins, primarily drawn from the provincial bourgeoisie, supported the Revolution, and advocated war with Europe as a means of uniting France behind the revolutionaries. During the National Convention phase, they became concerned with the increasing violence and the power of the sans-culottes, whose economic demands they opposed. They also opposed execution of the king. Thus they evolved into the moderate faction of the National Convention, especially when compared to their more radical counterparts, the Jacobins.

Image Jacobins Members of a political club who were active in the National Assembly, the Jacobins intended to secure support for the Revolution. During the National Convention phase, the group was dominated by more radical elements who called for the execution of the king, opposed war with Europe, advocated a republic, and allied with the sans-culottes and the Paris commune. After purging the Girondins, the Jacobin faction was responsible for instituting the Reign of Terror.

Image Committee of Public Safety A twelve-man committee created in the summer of 1793 and invested with nearly absolute power in order that it might secure the fragile French Republic from its enemies.

Image Reign of Terror The period of the French Revolution during which Robespierre, the leader of the Committee of Public Safety, created tribunals in the major cities of France to try individuals suspected of being enemies of the Revolution. During the Reign of Terror, between September 1793 and July 1794, between 200,000 and 400,000 people were sentenced to prison; between 25,000 and 50,000 of them are believed to have died either in prison or at the guillotine.

Image Directory A five-man board created to handle the executive functions of the government during Thermidor, the third and final phase of the French Revolution (1794—1799).

Image Napoleonic Code (also known as the Civil Code of 1804) A system of uniform law and administrative policy that Napoleon created for the empire he was building in Europe.

Image Continental System A system established by Napoleon in order to weaken Britain by forbidding the continental European states and kingdoms under French control from trading with Great Britain.

Image Concert of Europe The alliance created in November 1815 that required important diplomatic decisions to be made by all four great powers—Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain—“in concert” with one another.

Key Individuals:

Image King Louis XVI (France)

Image Georges Danton

Image Jean-Paul Marat

Image Maximilien Robespierre

Image Napoleon Bonaparte

Image Lazare Carnot

Image the Duke of Wellington



Between 1789 and 1799, the Kingdom of France underwent a political revolution that unfolded in three phases:

• A moderate phase (1789—1791), in which the politically active portions of the bourgeoisie, or merchant class, attempted to curb the power and privilege of the monarchy, the aristocracy, and the clergy, and to create a limited constitutional monarchy similar to that which existed in Great Britain.

• A radical phase (1791—1794), in which the politicized urban working class of Paris seized control and attempted to create a democratic republic and a more materially, politically, and socially egalitarian society.

• An end phase, known as “the Thermidor” (or Thermidorian Reaction), after the name of the month of the revolutionary calendar in which it occurred. In this phase, members of the Committee of Public Safety turned on Robespierre, who was executed. The resulting power vacuum led to the resurgence of the moderates and bourgeoisie who, after purging the radical elements from power, began dismantling Robespierre’s reforms by removing price controls and printing more money.

The National Convention then wrote a new constitution, guarding against both dictatorship and republicanism, and favoring the propertied middle classes. This system had representative legislative bodies, but became known as “the Directory,” after the five-man executive committee. Politically weak, by 1799, the Directory’s power over foreign policy was usurped by military generals, including Napoleon Bonaparte, who staged a coup d’état in November of that year. Napoleon embarked on an ambitious campaign to create a French Empire that would span most of Europe. Upon his defeat in 1815, by a coalition of European powers, the French monarchy was restored, and the Kingdom of France was returned to its traditional boundaries.

The Ancien Régime in Crisis

The phrase Ancien Régime, or Old Regime, refers to the traditional social and political hierarchy of eighteenth-century France. It was composed of three “Estates”:

• The First Estate, made up of the clergy, included all ordained members of the Catholic Church in France.

• The Second Estate, made up of the nobility, included all titled aristocrats.

• The Third Estate, made up of the citizenry, included everyone who was not either clergy or nobility and whose membership accounted for 96 percent of the population of France.

Together, the clergy and the nobility wielded enormous power and enjoyed tremendous privilege. The various groups that made up the Third Estate, however, bore the tax burden.

The Catholic Church in France functioned as a branch of the government bureaucracy. It registered births, marriages, and deaths; collected certain kinds of agricultural taxes; and oversaw both education and poverty relief. The Church owned approximately 10 percent of all the land in France, but paid no taxes to the government; instead, it made an annual gift to the Crown in an amount of its own choosing. The clergy who populated the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church in France ranged from poor, simple parish priests to the powerful cardinals, who were connected to the pope in Rome, and who often served as chief advisors in the government of the French king.

The nobility were the traditional landowning elite of France, though by this period they often supplemented their fortunes through banking and commerce. They owned somewhere between 25 and 33 percent of the land in France, but were exempt from most taxes despite the fact that they still collected various types of manorial dues from peasant farmers. Members of the nobility held most of the high offices in the French government, army, and Church.

The citizenry can roughly be divided into three social groups:

• The bourgeoisie, including merchants, manufacturers, bankers, lawyers, and master craftsmen

• The peasantry, including all agricultural laborers, ranging from very prosperous land owners to poor sharecroppers and migrant workers

• Urban laborers, including journeymen craftsmen, mill and other small-scale manufacturing workers, and all wage laborers who populated the cities and towns of France

By 1787, the government of King Louis XVI was in financial crisis. When he took the throne in 1774, Louis XVI had inherited a huge and ever-increasing national debt, most of it incurred by expansion of the bureaucracy, and by borrowing money to finance wars and maintain an army. With interest on the debt mounting and bankers refusing to lend the government more money, Louis XVI and his ministers attempted to reform the tax system of France and to pry some of the vast wealth out of the hands of the nobility. When the nobility resisted, he was forced to do something that had not been done since 1614; he called into session the Estates General. The Estates General was the closest thing to a legislative assembly that existed in eighteenth-century France. Members representing each of the three Estates met to hear the problems of the realm and to hear pleas for new taxes. In return, they were allowed to present a list of their own concerns and proposals, called cahiers, to the Crown. When the representatives arrived at Versailles, the palace of Louis XVI, in April 1789, the representatives of the Third Estate presented a series of proposals that were revolutionary in nature.

The Moderate Phase of the French Revolution (1789—1791)

The representatives of the Third Estate, in reality all members of the bourgeoisie, demanded that the number of representatives for the Third Estate be doubled in order to equal the number of representatives in the other two Estates combined and that representatives of all three Estates meet together and vote by head rather than by Estate. These demands were designed to give the Third Estate a chance to pass resolutions by persuading a single member of the nobility or clergy to side with them. The demands of the Third Estate posed a dilemma for Louis XVI; granting their demands would give the Third Estate unprecedented power, and that power would come at the expense of the nobility and the clergy, but could perhaps be used to achieve the tax reforms that Louis XVI and his ministers needed to address France’s financial crisis.

Demand for a New Constitution

While Louis XVI considered his options, the representatives of the Third Estate grew bolder. Arguing that they were the voice of the nation, on June 17, 1789, they declared themselves to be the National Assembly of France. When they were locked out of their meeting hall three days later, they pushed their way into the indoor tennis court of Louis XVI and vowed that they would not disband until a new constitution had been written for France. This proclamation became known as “the Tennis Court Oath.” On June 27, Louis XVI decided in favor of the Third Estate, decreeing that all members should join the National Assembly.

Fear Causes Parisians to Storm the Bastille

While the bourgeois leaders of the new National Assembly worked on writing a constitution for France, the uncertainty of the situation created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Nervous nobles began to demand that Louis XVI break up the new Assembly, which in turn demanded an explanation for the arrival of new regiments of mercenary troops in Versailles. By July 1789, much of the urban population of Paris, which now looked to the Assembly as its champion, believed that the nobility and, perhaps, the king intended to remove the Assembly by force. Their fears focused on the infamous Bastille, a prison fortress in Paris, which they wrongly believed housed the guns and ammunition that would be needed for the job.

On July 14, an angry crowd marched on the Bastille. The nervous governor of the Bastille ordered the crowd to disperse; when they refused, he had his guard fire into the crowd. The crowd responded by storming the Bastille. By the time it was over, 98 people had been killed and 73 wounded. The governor and his guard were killed, and their heads were paraded on pikes through the city. In the aftermath, the king’s advisors urged him to flee Versailles and raise an army to crush the Assembly and restore order to Paris. Louis XVI decided to try to soothe the city instead, and he promised to withdraw the mercenary troops.

Rural Unrest Emboldens the Assembly

While order was restored in Paris, it was disintegrating in the countryside, where peasants, aware that the nobility had been weakened and fearful that they would soon reassert their power with a vengeance, seized the opportunity to act. They raided granaries to ensure that they would be able to have affordable bread and attacked the chateaux of the local nobility in order to burn debt records. In the context of that rural unrest, sometimes known as “the Great Fear,” the Assembly passed “the August Decrees,” in which most of the traditional privileges of the nobility and the clergy were renounced and abolished. In an attempt to assure all citizens of France of their intention to bring about a new, more just society, on August 27, 1789, the Assembly adopted “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” a document that espoused individual rights and liberties for all citizens.

By the end of the summer of 1789, severe economic stress, in the form of high bread prices and unemployment, again caused the people of Paris to take action. Prompted by rumors that the nobility in Louis’s court were plotting a coup, and spurred on by an active tabloid press, the people of Paris rioted on October 5, 1789. This event came to be known as “the October Riot.” The next day, a contingent of Parisian women organized an 11-mile march from Paris to the king’s palace at Versailles. Along the way, they were joined by the Paris Guards, a citizen militia, and together they forced their way into the palace and insisted that Louis XVI accompany them back to Paris. He did, and within two weeks the National Assembly itself had relocated from Versailles to Paris. “The March to Versailles,” as it came to be known, demonstrated two important things:

• First, the crowds of Paris did not yet look upon Louis XVI as their enemy; they had marched to Versailles to retrieve him because they believed that if he were with them in Paris, rather than isolated in Versailles where he was surrounded by his aristocratic advisors, he would side with them and support the Assembly’s efforts.

• Second, the crowd of Paris, and their willingness to do violence, had become a powerful political force.

The relocation of both the king and the National Assembly to Paris, within easy reach of the Parisian crowd, set the stage for the radical phase of the Revolution.

The Radical Phase of the French Revolution (1791—1794)

The end of the October Riot marked the beginning of a two-year period of relative calm. A gradual improvement in the economy eased the tension in Paris, and the Assembly’s most determined aristocratic enemies either fled to the countryside or emigrated. The Assembly used this period of relative calm to complete the constitution and to draft and pass the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a piece of legislation that turned clergymen into employees of the government and turned Church property into property of the state. The Assembly soon sold off the confiscated property to pay off part of the national debt, but the attack on the clergy and the Church turned many faithful Catholics against the Assembly.

When Louis XVI signed the new constitution into law on September 15, 1791, the goals of the bourgeois leaders of the Assembly had been fulfilled: the power of the nobility and the Church had been diminished, and France was now a constitutional monarchy. Four developments conspired to send the Revolution into a more radical phase (each of which is reviewed in the sections that follow this list):

• The king’s attempt to secretly flee Paris in June 1791

• The outbreak of war with Austria and Prussia in April 1792

• The division of the National Assembly into political factions

• The rise of a politicized laboring faction, known as the sans-culottes because of the long work pants they wore

The King’s Attempt to Secretly Flee Paris

The king’s attempt to flee Paris and head north to rally supporters, an event that came to be known as “the Flight to Varennes,” was disastrous. He and the royal family were apprehended and forcibly returned to Paris. He was officially forgiven by the Assembly, but he had forever lost the trust of the people of Paris.

The Outbreak of War with Austria and Prussia

The war with Austria and Prussia came about partly because French aristocratic émigrés had been urging the Austrian and Prussian monarchies to come to the aid of the embattled Louis XVI. But both Louis XVI and the Assembly wanted the war—the king because he believed that the country would have to turn to him to lead it in a time of war, and the Assembly because they believed it would unite the people of France in a common cause. However, when the combined forces of the Austrian and Prussian armies invaded France, the French army collapsed, and the country went into a panic.

The Division of the National Assembly into Political Factions

The development of political factions within the Assembly revealed the differing opinions about the goals and aims of the French Revolution that had always lurked under the surface of its united front against the nobility and the clergy. In October 1791, an attempt to defuse factional rivalries by dissolving the National Assembly and electing a new Legislative Assembly failed to solve the problem.

The Rise of a Politicized Laboring Faction: The Sans-Culottes

From the beginning, the Parisian crowd and its willingness to do violence had been a factor in the Revolution. But it had been a force with essentially traditional and conservative aims, insisting that the king pay attention to, and take proper care of, his people. By 1792, the crowd was different; the working people (bakers, shopkeepers, artisans, and manual laborers, characterized by their long working pants) were now seen attending meetings of political clubs and discussing the reforms that were still needed, reforms that would bring about true equality.

Once the men and women of the sans-culottes began to assert themselves, political power belonged to whomever they supported. This fact became evident on August 10, 1792, when a crowd stormed first the royal palace and then the hall of the Assembly. Unable to resist the crowd, the leaders of the Assembly voted to depose and imprison the king and to immediately convene a new National Convention to deal with the crises facing the country.

The Vote to End the French Monarchy

The membership of the National Convention was elected by universal manhood suffrage, where each adult male was entitled to a single vote. Accordingly, the members of the National Convention, particularly the Jacobin faction, were more radical than their predecessors. In September 1792, the Convention voted to abolish the monarchy and to proclaim France a republic. It also managed to reorganize the French army and push the invading Austrian and Prussian forces back across the border. When the Convention proclaimed the war an extension of the Revolution and vowed to carry it anywhere people yearned for liberty and freedom, the monarchies of Europe responded by forming a coalition to crush the Revolution.

In January 1793, the Convention put Louis XVI on trial for treason. The debate that followed his conviction revealed a split between two powerful factions within the Convention. The Girondins, drawn from the provincial bourgeoisie, were concerned by growing extremism and violence of the Revolution, illustrated by the September massacres, in which mobs of Parisians killed prisoners feared to be planning counterrevolutionary action. Accordingly, they mostly opposed execution of the king. The Jacobins, whose members came from the lower strata of the bourgeoisie, were adamant that he must die. The vote was close, but the Jacobins prevailed, and Louis XVI was sent to the guillotine on January 21, 1793.

A New Constitution and Robespierre’s Reign of Terror

The execution of the king, combined with a decision to increase the number of men conscripted into the army, caused large anti-Convention uprisings throughout France. In Paris, the Jacobins used the revolt as an opportunity to purge the Girondins from the Convention. In June 1793, a Jacobin-led mob occupied the Convention hall and refused to leave until the Girondins resigned. Those Girondins who refused to resign were arrested. The purged Convention then passed “the Law of the Maximum” to cap the price of bread and other essentials, and drafted a new constitution that guaranteed universal manhood suffrage, universal education, and subsistence wages. In order to secure the egalitarian, democratic republic espoused by the new constitution, the Convention created a twelve-man Committee of Public Safety and invested it with almost total power in order that it might secure the fragile republic from its enemies. Within the Committee, a young lawyer from the provinces, Maximilien Robespierre, gained control through his ability to persuade both his fellow Jacobins and the sans-culottes crowd to follow him.

Under Robespierre’s leadership, the Committee instituted what has come to be known as the Reign of Terror. Arguing that, in times of revolution, terror was the necessary companion to virtue, Robespierre created tribunals in the major cities of France to try individuals suspected of being enemies of the Revolution. During the period of the Terror, between September 1793 and July 1794, between 200,000 and 400,000 people were sentenced to prison; between 25,000 and 50,000 of them are believed to have died either in prison or at the guillotine.

Among the victims of the Reign of Terror were those who rivaled Robespierre for power. In April 1794, when Robespierre had the popular and influential Jacobin leader, Georges-Jacques Danton, arrested and executed for daring to suggest that it was time to reassess the Reign of Terror, he lost the support of both the Jacobins and the crowd. In July 1794, Robespierre was arrested, tried, and executed by the same Terror machine that he had created. The execution of Robespierre marked the end of the radical phase of the Revolution, as an exhausted Paris, devoid of its radical leaders, succumbed to a reassertion of power by the propertied bourgeoisie.

The Final Phase of the French Revolution: Thermidor and the Rise of Napoleon (1794—1799)

For several months following the execution of Robespierre, the revolutionary terror was replaced by the Thermidor Reaction, so named after the month of the revolutionary calendar in which Robespierre was executed. What followed was a terror of reaction characterized by a purge of the remaining Jacobins, and a reversal of Robespierre’s policies. In the Convention, the moderates wrote a new constitution limiting political suffrage to propertied middle classes, eliminating price controls, and printing currency to handle debts. The resulting inflation hurt lower socioeconomic classes, but any unrest was quickly subdued. The executive functions of the government were placed in the hands of a five-man board known as the Directory. Increasingly, the Directory relied on the military to keep order and to protect it from both the sans-culottes, who stormed the Convention in May 1795, and from the Royalists, who attempted a coup five months later.

When the war against the European coalition began to go badly, conservative factions within the Convention conspired with the ambitious and popular army general, Napoleon Bonaparte, to overthrow the Directory. On November 9, 1799, the conspirators staged a successful coup, and Napoleon acquired the powers necessary to govern as “first consul.” By 1804, Napoleon had rid himself of his coconspirators and had France proclaimed an “empire” and himself “emperor.” He governed France with a mixture of reform and traditionalism, and oversaw the military expansion of the French Empire until his defeat at the hands of coalition forces at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Post-Revolutionary France and the Napoleonic Code

By the time Napoleon had himself declared emperor in 1804, he was well on his way to completing the process, begun by the Revolution, of creating a strong central government and administrative uniformity in France. To solidify his position, Napoleon took the following measures:

• Suppressed Royalists and Republicans through the use of spies and surprise arrests

• Censored and controlled the press

• Regulated what was taught in schools

• Reconciled France with the Roman Church by signing the Concordat of 1801, which stipulated that French clergy would be chosen and paid by the state but consecrated by the pope

To provide a system of uniform law and administrative policy, Napoleon created the Civil Code of 1804, more widely known as the Napoleonic Code. It incorporated many principles that had been espoused during the Revolution, some revolutionary and some reactionary. In accordance with revolutionary principles, the Code:

• Safeguarded all forms of property

• Upheld equality before the law

• Established the right to choose a profession

• Guaranteed promotion on merit for employees of the state

In accordance with reactionary principles, the Code:

• Upheld the ban on working men’s associations

• Upheld the patriarchal nature of French society by granting men extensive rights over their wives and children

As Napoleon conquered Europe, he spread the Code across the continent. The overall effect of the Code on Europe was to erode the remnants of the old feudal system by further weakening the traditional power of the nobility and clergy.

Napoleon’s Empire

Between 1805 and 1810, Napoleon’s forces won a series of battles that allowed France to dominate all of continental Europe, except the Balkan Peninsula. These key victories included the following:

• The Battle of Austerlitz (December 1805), defeating Russo-Austrian forces

• The Battle of Jena (October 1806), defeating Prussian forces

• The Battle of Friedland (June 1807), defeating Russian forces

The resulting French Empire consisted of some states that were annexed directly into the French Empire, including the following:

• Belgium

• Germany to the Rhine

• The German coastal region to the western Baltic

• West-central Italy, including Rome, Genoa, and Trieste

Also included in the Empire were five satellite kingdoms ruled by Napoleon’s relatives:

• Holland, ruled by his brother Louis

• Westphalia, ruled by his brother Jérôme

• Spain, ruled by his brother Joseph

• The Kingdom of Italy, ruled by his stepson Eugène

• The Kingdom of Naples, ruled by his brother-in-law Joachim Murat

The remaining portions of the Empire consisted of a series of subservient states and confederations, which included the following:

• The Confederation of the Rhine, eventually consisting of eighteen German states that had been part of the now-defunct Holy Roman Empire

• The nineteen cantons of the Swiss Confederation

• The Duchy of Warsaw, carved out of Prussia’s Polish lands

Those European states that remained independent from France were reluctant allies that simply had no choice but to bow to Napoleon’s power. Such states included the following:

• Austria, where Francis II ruled a kingdom diminished by the disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire

• Prussia, now much smaller for losing its Polish lands and other areas to the Confederation of the Rhine

• Russia, which, following the defeat at Friedland, signed the Treaty of Tilsit on July 7, 1807, recognizing France’s claims in Europe

• Sweden

• Denmark

The one European nation that still threatened Napoleon was Great Britain, whose superior naval power, as exemplified by its victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, made it unconquerable. In order to weaken Great Britain, Napoleon established what came to be known as the Continental System, whereby the Continental European states and kingdoms under French control were forbidden to trade with Great Britain.

The Decline and Fall of Napoleon and His Empire

The decline and fall of Napoleon and his empire were due to a combination of flawed policies and growing resistance to his rule. The trade restrictions of the Continental System failed to weaken Great Britain and succeeded instead in being a constant source of resentment amongst the conquered states of Europe. The British responded with a counter-blockade that damaged the French economy and engaged in a lively smuggling enterprise with the rest of Europe. The combination of the restrictions of the Continental System and general resentment of French rule led to the growth of a new national spirit in many parts of continental Europe.


In Spain, popular resistance to the rule of Napoleon’s brother Joseph was immediate. There were demonstrations and riots in Madrid. The brutal repression with which Napoleon’s troops met these demonstrations only stiffened opposition, the spirit of which was captured forever in Francisco de Goya’s painting titled The Third of May, 1808, which depicts a French firing squad executing helpless Spanish protestors. Opposition to French domination grew into what has been called the first example of guerrilla warfare, as loosely organized pockets of opposition carried out raids throughout Spain in a sporadic and unpredictable way, which the French could do little to prevent.


In Germany a new sense of nationalism grew in response to French domination. The sense of independence that was once a source of pride in the independent principalities and duchies was now perceived as a fatal weakness that had made Germany vulnerable to the French. In response, opposition forces in Germany began to work together, and many looked to Prussia for leadership. For its own part, Prussia quietly modernized its civil institutions and its army, and waited for an opportunity to rise up against its French overlords.


In Russia, the competing ambitions of Tsar Alexander I and Napoleon led to renewed hostilities. In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with a Grande Armée (“Great Army”) of over 600,000 troops. The Russian army retreated, stripping towns of supplies and burning croplands as they went. In September, the Russian army turned on the tired and hungry French troops at Borodino, some 70 miles east of Moscow, and fought one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. The Russians withdrew, opening the way to Moscow, but the French army lost over 40,000 men. On September 14, Napoleon led his army into Moscow to find that the Russians had deserted it and set it aflame. Napoleon reluctantly retreated, but it was too late. In November and December, the Russian winter and advancing Russian troops eventually finished off the Grande Armée, undersupplied and too far from home. Nearly 500,000 French troops were lost in all; Napoleon abandoned them and dashed back to Paris.

Exile to Elba

News of the defeat of the Grande Armée in Russia galvanized resistance to Napoleon’s rule throughout Europe. Napoleon raised a new army, but it lacked the supplies and veterans lost in Russia. In October 1813, a coalition of forces from Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Sweden defeated Napoleon’s forces at Leipzig. In November, a combined force of British and Spanish troops crossed the Pyrenees into France and took Paris. The victorious coalition exiled Napoleon to the island of Elba, off the coast of Italy.

The Battle of Waterloo

In 1815, Napoleon staged one last comeback, known as “the Hundred Days,” returning to France and raising one last army. He was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in Belgium by coalition forces led by the Duke of Wellington. Napoleon was finished. He was captured and imprisoned on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he died six years later.


In November 1814, representatives from the four major powers that had combined to defeat Napoleon—Great Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria—met for a peace conference, known as “the Congress of Vienna.” Those representatives—Lord Castlereagh, Tsar Alexander I, Baron Hardenberg, and Prince Klemens von Metternich—were all conservative members of the aristocracy. Accordingly, the goal of the conference was to reestablish the foundations of aristocratic dominance that had been challenged by the French Revolution. They were guided by the twin principles of legitimacy and stability. Their concept of legitimacy dictated that all European territories should be returned to the control of the aristocratic house that had governed before Napoleon had redrawn the map. But the concept of stability meant a restoration of a balance of power in Europe. Accordingly, the important elements of the resulting settlement consisted of both tradition and innovation. The important components of the settlement included the following:

• The restoration of the monarchy in Spain under Ferdinand VII

• The restoration of the monarchy in France under Louis XVIII

• The reconstitution of France inside borders that were nearly those of 1789

• The ceding of parts of Saxony, Westphalia, and the Rhine to Prussia

• The unification of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) and the Dutch Republic to form a single kingdom of the Netherlands under the House of Orange

• The placing of the kingdoms of Lombardy and Venetia in Italy, and of the states in the German Confederation, under the control of Austria

In an attempt to secure the balance of power created by the Vienna Settlement, the leaders of Austria, Russia, Prussia, and Great Britain entered into a military alliance designed to make aggression by individual states or kingdoms impossible. The alliance, created in November 1815, came to be known as “the Concert of Europe,” for the way in which it required important diplomatic decisions to be made by all four great powers “in concert” with one another. In 1818, France, having paid its war indemnities, joined the alliance.

Review Questions


Multiple Choice

Questions 1—3 refer to the following passage:

But, to found and consolidate democracy, to achieve the peaceable reign of the constitutional laws, we must end the war of liberty against tyranny and pass safely across the storms of the revolution: such is the aim of the revolutionary system that you have enacted. Your conduct, then, ought also to be regulated by the stormy circumstances in which the republic is placed; and the plan of your administration must result from the spirit of the revolutionary government combined with the general principles of democracy.

Now, what is the fundamental principle of the democratic or popular government—that is, the essential spring which makes it move? It is virtue; I am speaking of the public virtue which . . . is nothing other than the love of country and of its laws. . . .

If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless. Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue; it is not so much a special principle as it is a consequence of the general principle of democracy applied to our country’s most urgent needs.

It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed.

Maximilien Robespierre, “Speech of February 5, 1794”

1. Based on the passage, what was the goal of the Revolution for Robespierre?

A. To create a tyranny of the virtuous

B. To create a constitutional monarchy

C. To create a democratic republic governed by the rule of law

D. To create an absolute monarchy

2. How did Robespierre feel about the use of terror?

A. It was immoral and indicative of tyranny.

B. It was a necessary means to a just end.

C. It was fatal to the Revolution.

D. It was an indication of powerlessness.

3. How would Robespierre have responded to the charge that his revolutionary government had become despotic?

A. That the resemblance to despotism was superficial.

B. That despotism was necessary to establish a virtuous monarchy.

C. That, as a hero, he was entitled to despotic rule.

D. Despotism was inevitable.

Chapter Question (Causation)


4. Briefly give TWO illustrations of the existence of a “radical phase” of the French Revolution and explain ONE cause of the shift to that phase.

Answers and Explanations

1. C is correct because the passage argues that a war of liberty is being fought in order to bring about a democracy and “the peaceable reign of the constitutional laws.” A is incorrect because the passage argues that tyranny is a tool, not a goal of the Revolution. B and D are incorrect because the passage makes no reference to a monarchy as a goal of the Revolution.

2. B is correct because the passage states that virtue without terror is powerless against tyrannical enemies. A is incorrect because the passage argues that terror is a tool and that the morality of its usage depends upon the goal of the user. C is incorrect because the passage argues that terror is necessary for the success of the Revolution, not fatal to it. D is incorrect because the passage states that it is virtue that is powerless in times of revolution, unless it is paired with terror.

3. A is correct because the passage states that his government resembles despotism only as “the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed”; that is, only superficially. B is incorrect because the passage states that the redemptive goal of the Revolution is the institution of a virtuous republic, not monarchy. C is incorrect because the passage disputes the notion that his government has become despotic. D is incorrect because the passage argues that the Revolution can be successful in its battle against despotism if it is willing to use terror.

4. Suggested answer:

Thesis: The existence of a radical phase of the French Revolution can be detected in the passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790 and in the vote to abolish the monarchy in September 1792. One explanation for the advent of this phase was the rise of the sans-culottes.

Paragraph Outline:

I. The passage of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in July 1790 is evidence of a radical phase because its subordination of the clergy to the new French state was not a goal of the original, moderate leaders of the Revolution, who wanted only to curb the privileges of the clergy.

II. The vote to abolish the monarchy in September 1792 is evidence of a radical phase because the abolition of the French monarchy was not a goal of the original, moderate leaders of the Revolution, who wanted only to curb the absolutist tendencies of the king and his government.

III. One explanation for the shift to a radical phase is the rise of the sans-culottes, the working people (bakers, shopkeepers, artisans, and manual laborers) of Paris. They helped to cause the radical phase because they had the willingness and the numerical strength to violently impose the more radical agenda of Convention members like Robespierre.

Rapid Review


When Louis XVI was forced by financial difficulties to call the seldom-used Estates General into session in 1789, the bourgeois representatives of the Third Estate launched a revolution aimed at curbing the power and privilege of the nobility and the clergy, and they attempted to turn France into a constitutional monarchy. Supported by the Paris crowd, the leaders of the newly formed National Assembly nearly succeeded, but foreign intervention, persistent resistance from the nobility, the indecisiveness of Louis XVI, and the development of factions within the Assembly allowed new, more radical leaders to win over the sans-culottes who now made up the Parisian crowd and set the Revolution on a more radical course. Besieged by a coalition of European powers and beset with factional strife, the radicals resorted to a Reign of Terror, which eventually consumed them.

By 1794, the propertied bourgeoisie reasserted itself and concentrated on restoring order and repealing the gains made by the radicals. In 1799, their executive organ, known as the Directory, was overthrown by a military general, Napoleon Bonaparte. He gradually assumed dictatorial powers and attempted to create a Europe-wide French Empire. Upon his defeat in 1815 by coalition forces, the French monarchy was restored, and the Kingdom of France was restored to its pre-Revolutionary boundaries.

Further Resources

The Broadway musical version of Les Miserables, from the novel by Victor Hugo—French Revolution