The French Revolution

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What were the positive and negative effects of the French Revolution?

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The French Revolution is often referred to as a watershed event because it had a profound effect on France, as well as other European countries.

Because of the financial excesses of King Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV, France declined. Louis XV lost nearly all of the colonies in America to England, and he lost India. After he realized that he had been a weak leader and had contributed to the loss of royal authority, King Louis XV declared, "Apres-moi, le deluge." ("After me, there comes the flood.") Upon his death, his grandson became Louis XVI. He, too, was a weak king who did not know how to resolve the fiscal problems of his country. As a result, taxes were increased. However, the Third Estate, composed of everyone but the nobility and the clergy, were the only group taxed because the First and Second Estate refused to be taxed. On July 14, 1789, realizing their numbers, members of the Third Estate revolted against their oppressors and stormed the Bastille, which was a symbol of the absolutism and the arbitrary power of the monarchy.

The Declaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen (Declaration of the rights of men and citizens) was drawn up. It declared that all men were free and equal under the law. All citizens were entitled to liberty and the free expression of thought, and all citizens had freedom of speech. The monarchy was done away with, so now the real power lay in the National Assembly. This Assembly limited the power of the Church and transformed the administrative system of France by dividing it into departments.

As France moved toward becoming a democratic society, other countries worried that this new revolutionary spirit would spread. Consequently, the neighboring countries of Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which demanded that the French return Louis XVI to the throne. The new leaders of France interpreted the declaration as hostile and declared war on Austria and Prussia. When this war did not go well for the French, the people became discontent with the rule of the Girondins, a moderate faction. The Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, took control. At first, it seemed that the newly created Committee of Public Safety would stabilize the economy. However, Robespierre became paranoid. Fearing counterrevolutionary influences, Robespierre began what has been called the Reign of Terror, in which he had more than 15,000 people executed. 

Robespierre was himself executed in 1794 after the removal of foreign invaders and the stabilization of the economy. Soon, a more modern government was formed. In 1795, the Directory, a system of five members, was established. This system lasted until near the end of 1799; at this point Napoleon Bonaparte organized a coup d'etat and declared himself First Counsel, taking all the executive and legislative powers of the Directory.

Napoleon brought order to France as he established a centralized government. He codified the French laws under the Napoleonic Code, a code which still forms the foundation of civil law today. He reestablished relations with the Pope after France was rejected by the Church following the revolution. He brought about reforms in banking. He established an organized educational system in which students in each grade learned standardized concepts throughout the country. Militarily, Napoleon led many successful campaigns. During one, the Rosetta Stone was discovered. (It was this artifact which provided the key to cracking the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics.) 

Unfortunately, like many rulers, Napoleon became consumed by power and sought to form a vast empire. While he was successful at conquering many countries, he failed in his invasion of Russia and its brutal winter. In 1814, following several other losses, Napoleon abdicated the throne and was exiled to the island of Elba. However, Napoleon escaped and returned to France, where he was welcomed by many. He began his One Hundred Days campaign, but he was defeated at Waterloo.

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The French Revolution had many positive effects. It eliminated the old class system under the Bourbon monarchy, one which gave preferential treatment under custom and law to clergy and to the nobility. The Revolution established religious tolerance for non-Catholics, and many of its legal reforms, which included trial by jury, habeas corpus, free press, and other civil liberties, were established (at least nominally) under Napoleon and continued into the nineteenth century. The French Revolution also inspired revolutionaries throughout Europe who sought, with varying degrees of success, to bring many of its liberal reforms to their own countries. 

However, these limited gains were won at a terrible price. The Revolution cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of French people, many of whom were totally innocent. We think of the extreme violence of the Terror when we think of the excesses of the Revolution, but the Revolution led to more than two decades of almost constant warfare which devastated Europe and brought a dictator/emperor to the French throne in the form of Napoleon. Many of its more liberal reforms, including women's rights and abolition of slavery, were rolled back under Napoleon. Europe would not see such turmoil until World War One, and it is difficult to say that such changes as did emerge from the Revolution were worth the human cost.

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What were some positive and negative outcomes of the French Revolution?

I think the negative outcomes were mainly short-term and the positive ones long term. 

There is no question that the French Revolution was needed. The Ancien Régime was brutal, denying basic human rights to the vast majority of subjects. There was no freedom of speech or religion and the nobility could act with impunity with no repercussions for such acts as raping female peasants or assaulting or abusing members of the lower classes. The Roman Catholic Church had also been corrupted by its alliance with the throne, with important posts reserved for members of the nobility rather than people with the best qualifications, such as piety or theological knowledge. As Brettd pointed out, much of the tax revenue, often taken from the poor and middle classes, was squandered on luxuries for the court rather than the common good. Creating a fairer and more democratic society was a strong and obvious positive.

The actual way in which the Revolution was conducted, though, was harsh and brutal. The Reign of Terror (5 September 1793 – 28 July 1794) was particularly brutal. Just as it is wrong to mistreat someone because they do not come from an aristocratic lineage, it is equally immoral to mistreat people because they do come from an aristocratic background. The ideal of liberty could not be realized until all people began to be dealt with equally as individuals, not as members of classes. The eventual outcome, though, of the current free democratic society is a strong positive.

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What were some positive and negative outcomes of the French Revolution?

On the positive side, one can easily argue that the removal of King Louis XVI was a step in the right direction, as he had bankrupted France, and his royal court lived with every luxury while people were starving.  There were other injustices under the King and he became more and more like a dictator towards the end of his rule, as he tried to maintain his grip on power.

On the other hand, it's not as though what replaced the monarchy was any better, and in many ways, it was a lot worse.  For the next 13 years France spun into a cycle of violence, revolution and counter-revolution, only to end in the disastrous reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, who led the country to war and defeat.

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