How did the relationship between the French people and the king change in the early stages of the revolution?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

As other contributors have already pointed out, the French Revolution's first stage entailed a transition from an Absolutist Monarchy to a Constitutional one. Traditionally, the monarchy was understood as being the central institution around which allegiances and political identities turned--the monarchy stood at the center of the Early Modern State....

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

As other contributors have already pointed out, the French Revolution's first stage entailed a transition from an Absolutist Monarchy to a Constitutional one. Traditionally, the monarchy was understood as being the central institution around which allegiances and political identities turned--the monarchy stood at the center of the Early Modern State. The French Revolution overturned this notion, however, assigning the people of France and the idea of nationhood itself as the defining center-points around which notions of sovereignty and political identities were defined.

Additionally, it should be noted, one of the key moments in this history came with the October Days of 1789, when the French government was relocated and brought back to Paris. When reading about the French Revolution, you might get the sense that Paris was a center of Revolutionary turbulence (and a center of Revolutionary radicalism). This relocation, then, rendered the Royal Family vulnerable to that turbulence. Overall, while Louis XVI was largely held in positive esteem (and still viewed as the father of the nation of France), you should be aware that this popularity was ultimately founded on unstable grounds, and subject to emotional swings.

The other key turning point came with the flight to Varennes, which would destroy Louis XVI's reputation beyond repair.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The most obvious way that the relationship between the French monarchy and the French people changed in the early days of the Revolution was that the monarch, King Louis XVI, became subject to the rule of law--that is, he became a constitutional monarch. This took the form of the Constitution of 1791, which established a representative assembly and placed restraints on the power of the monarchy. This marked a significant step in the Revolution, one which was intended by many liberals in the Assembly to establish a government not unlike that of Great Britain, long admired by French intellectuals for its balance between monarchy and representative government.

This reform, disdained by many radicals, nevertheless marked a major shift in the ideological relationship between the French king and his subjects, one which culminated in his execution and the establishment of a republic. Traditionally, the monarch was seen as the protector of the people, and the defender of their rights. In practice, Louis XVI had actually tried to rein in the privileges of French aristocrats, who blocked his efforts to tax them. Eventually, though, he came to see his interests as aligned with the traditional nobility, and the new Constitution reflects the notion that the nation must be governed by laws and not an individual. Indeed, as time went on, the King was no longer conceived of as a father figure, a belief that was at the heart of absolutist theory, but as an enemy of the people.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In answering this question it's important to understand that most people in the early stages of the French Revolution didn't want to abolish the monarchy. The general consensus was that the absolutist system should be replaced by a constitutional monarchy, the kind that existed across the English Channel in Great Britain.

Initially, Louis XVI tried to get with the program, so to speak, acknowledging his new status as Citizen Louis Capet, not so much an absolutist ruler as the first among equals. For the most part, Louis' acceptance of the new order endeared him to the French people, who felt sure that a constitutional monarchy would now be established. But it wasn't very long before Louis sought to break free from his effective captivity at the hands of the Revolutionary leaders and seek a restoration of absolutism with the assistance of the crowned heads of Europe.

Old habits die hard, and Louis, who'd been brought up to believe that he'd been chosen by God to rule France, couldn't come to terms with his reduced status. So he took off with his family under cover of darkness to initiate a counter-revolution. This clandestine journey, known as the Flight to Varennes, would ultimately seal Louis' and the monarchy's fate. The royal family's unsuccessful attempt to escape was widely interpreted as an act of treachery against the new nation. It was as traitors, therefore, that Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette, were eventually tried, convicted, and sent to the guillotine.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Even before the revolution, the power of the French king had waned in comparison to the absolutism of Louis XIV. The Bourbon monarchy was still powerful, but administrative changes were already being introduced. Most mark the beginning of the revolution by the meeting of the Estates General and the development of the Constituent Assembly in early 1789.

This concession on the part of the monarch, forced upon him because of the crown's dire financial situation and the growing displeasure of the population, opened the door for the beginnings of a parliamentary democracy. The first National Assembly of 1789 was composed primary of members of the "Third Estate"—the people—those who were not clergymen or nobility. These were, in essence, the bourgeoisie and the upper middle class, and they came to have greater and greater power as the revolution progressed.

There was a radical populist dimension to the revolution too, first marked by the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789. Eventually tensions between the king and the people reached a breaking point and the royal family attempted to flee France is 1791. They were apprehended and jailed. And in the extreme radicalism of the Reign of Terror, Marie Antoinette and the king were executed.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team