Brief History of the World Wiki
French Revolution
Period Late Modern Ages
Dates 1789-1799 AD
Preceded by
American War of Independence
Followed by
Age of Napoleon Bonaparte
My machine will take off a head in a twinkling and the victim will feel nothing but a refreshing coolness. We cannot make too much haste, gentlemen, to allow the nation to enjoy this advantage.

–Joseph-Ignace Guillotin

The era of the French Revolution lasted from about 1789 AD until 1799 AD. It began with a financial crisis that forced Louis XVI to summon the French parliament for the first time in over two hundred-years. It then ended with the Coup of 18 Brumaire that swept Napoleon Bonaparte to power, who would carry forward much of what the Revolution had achieved.

Following in the footsteps of the American Revolution, the French Revolution was one of the most dramatic social upheavals in history. The Revolution itself was a mess, a great confused boiling-over of French society. It can best be understood as a clash between conservative royalists, moderate revolutionaries, and radical revolutionaries; although the radicals are especially hard to define for it encompassed everything from liberals to proto-communists to anarchists. It was conservative royalists who first turned the French financial crisis into a political crisis, but they soon came to realise that they had more to fear from an increasingly democratic France, than an increasingly despotic king. In the first truly revolutionary act, the moderate revolutionaries seized control of the government, abolished feudal privileges and the dominant position of the Church, and established a constitutional monarchy. Although the constitution was progressive for its time, the radical revolutionaries then seized the state and overthrew the monarchy, establishing a republic. They had sweeping plans for wealth redistribution and universal suffrage that were well ahead of their time; Switzerland became the first state to actually introduce universal male suffrage more than half-a-century later. However, these were never implemented in the face of the French Revolutionary War and conservative royalists counter-revolutionaries. Instead, emergency powers were used to conduct a repressive Terror. As the war turned in the favour of the French, the actions of the radical revolutionaries became unjustifiable and another coup of moderate revolutionaries swept them to power. However, the moderates were unable to establish stability while fending off resurgent conservative royalists and radicals, and their government became synonymous with corruption and self-interest. Ultimately, this led the French people into the safe and comforting arms of one man; Napoleon Bonaparte; essentially exchanging the authoritarian regime of an absolute monarchy, for another authoritarian regime.

Regardless of the Terror and the “despotism” of Napoleon, the French Revolution was arguably far more revolutionary than its American counterpart. Its ideas especially the principle of equality profoundly altered the course of modern history, and triggered the decline of absolute monarchies, and the rise of liberal democracies, as well as socialism, secularism, radicalism. The revolution would immediately inspire revolutions in Haiti and Ireland, and all the way down to the Russian Revolution of 1917. Meanwhile, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars witnessed the birth of Total War.


Build-up to the French Revolution[]

With the European Age of Enlightenment heavily influencing the American War of Independence, it was hardly surprising that the hopes raised by the birth of the young United States of America would in turn influence events in Europe too. Nowhere was this felt more dramatically than in the great confused boiling-over of French society; the French Revolution (1789-1799).

Satirical print from 1789 depicting the Third Estate carrying the clergy and nobility on its back

Although the feudal system had been weakened in France by the firm establishment of absolute monarchy under Louis XIV, the 27 million people who made up French society were still rigidly divided into the famous three Estates of the so-called Ancien Régime: the First Estate being the clergy, the Second Estate being the nobility, and the Third Estate, everyone else. French society was fundamentally maladjusted. The Third Estate made up 98% of the population, with the vast majority either: landless peasants or urban unskilled workers relying on the uncertainty of day-labour; small subsistence farmers living under the last burdensome vestiges of feudalism, and in constant fear of losing their precious land if they ever fell behind on a loan; artisans still suffering under to the restrictive practices of the Medieval Guild system; and traders constrained by France's archaic internal tariffs between provinces. Nevertheless, the Bourgeoisie, the prosperous upper echelon of the Third Estate, were the fasting growing demographic groups in 18th century France: large independent farmers; middle-class professionals like lawyers and doctors; and the secure urban elite such as merchants, industrialists, and bankers. However, for the wealthiest bourgeoisie, money was often not reinvested into the trades that had enriched them. Instead, they sought to purchase their way into the Second Estate, through the venal offices introduced by Louis XIV. All nobles enjoyed tax exceptions of various types and sizes, in France's rather upside-down principle that the wealthier you were, the less tax you paid; a means by which absolute monarchy placated the nobility. There were somewhere in the region of 260,000 nobles in France, including the old Sword Nobility and the new bourgeoisie Robe Nobility. Meanwhile, there were about 130,000 clergy in the First Estate. Collectively the Church owned about 10% of all the land in France, and enjoyed its own tax exceptions. The First Estate was in many ways a microcosm of the other two Estates, with the bishoprics dominated by the nobility, increasingly estranged from the parish priests recruited from the commoners. It's not that the nobility and the Church paid no tax at all, it's just that they weren't paying anything even close to their fair share. Inevitably, the burden of taxation fell disproportionately on the Third Estate, and especially the bourgeoisie, adding to their resentment at being entirely excluded from the political process.

Louis XV, whose reign is almost universally characterised as one of debilitating stagnation.

The blame for the mature form of the Ancien Régime, and persistent financial problems of the French monarchy, are most often laid at the feet of Louis XIV. Yet at the end of the Sun King's reign, France's problems were far from insurmountable for an effective monarch. Unfortunately, Louis XV (1715-774) was neither very interested in politics, nor particularly capable. He involved France in the Seven Years' War at great expense and with disastrous results: while France committed her resources to a continental stalemate, the crucial colonial struggle with Britain was decisively lost. Louis XV' reign was characterised by political and economic malaise, but also by the full flowering of the French Enlightenment, a fantastic explosion of philosophy, literature, and science. This was in part facilitated by Louis' rather lax attitude to censorship. Virtually every social, economical, and political aspect of the Ancien Régime was judged and found wanting by these Enlightenment philosophers, who were read more widely in France than anywhere else, through the many “societies of thought”: coffeehouses, chess clubs, masonic lodges, and agricultural societies. France was in desperate need of long overdue modernising reform, but the weakness of absolute monarchy is that it depended entirely on the talents of the despot in whose hands all authority was gathered. Meanwhile France was not quite an absolute monarchy, and still subject to entrenched self-interests.

Portrait of Louis XVI by Antoine-François Callet

Thus the problems of France's maladjusted society and financial mess landed at the feet of Louis XVI (1774-91), the grandson of Louis XV. He was amiable, well-meaning, and not at all opposed to much needed reform. Yet he was also indecisive and ill-prepared for the looming crisis. While Charles I of England had lost his head due to his own infuriating inflexibility, Louis XV went to the guillotine for his tendency to back-down whenever faced with strong opposition, resulting in destabalising swings in policy that would help escalated the French Revolution every step of the way. As part of his grandfathers alliance, Louis had married the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. However, in the wake of the Seven Years' War, Austria was widely blamed for dragging France into a war over Silesia, that wound-up gaining Austria nothing, while costing France both her colonies and international prestige. Thus the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was particularly reviled as frivolous and corrupt. This impression was only reinforced in 1785, when news broke of a court scandal involving the theft of a valuable diamond necklace. A poverty-stricken noblewoman had used the queen's name in a clever deception to steal the necklace. When the theft was exposed and con-woman found guilty of the crime, she was publicly flogged. Yet the noblewoman garnered a great deal of sympathy from the public, and many people continued to believe that the queen had actually been involved. Marie Antoinette, though entirely blameless, became a figure of hatred, and by extension so did the monarchy. Meanwhile, France was the most populous country in Europe, with the European population having doubled between between 1715 and 1800, due to higher standards of living and reduced the mortality rates. Crop failures in much of the country in 1775 and even worse in 1787-88 would compound the existing restlessness in the country.


The direct cause of the French Revolution was ultimately a financial crisis. France was on the brink of bankruptcy due to her costly involvements in the Seven Years’ War. These financial problems were well known to the royal ministry long before the French Revolution. Two reforming finance ministers, Maupeou (1770-74) and Turgot (1774-76), were dismissed when their efforts to spread the burden of taxation more fairly foundered against well-orchestrated resistance by the nobility. Turgot had been bitterly opposed to French involvement in the American War of Independence, which would only exacerbate the country's barely manageable debt. Ironically, France didn't even benefit from the birth of the independent United States of America, with Britain quickly restoring the old colonial relationship in economic terms. Meanwhile in contrast to these reformer, there was the finance ministry of Jacques Necker (1777-81) who could charitably be called a charlatan. He falsified the royal finances in order to get favourable rates on bank loans, which further hampered his successors from enacting reforms because the full extent of the financial crisis was not believed until it was too late.

Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, the French statesman whose efforts to reform the structure of his nation’s finance precipitated the governmental crisis that led to the French Revolution of 1789.

In 1787, finance minister Charles Alexandre de Calonne finally accepted that the financial crisis everybody had been trying to avoid for the last decades was upon them; debt interest repayments were now a full quarter of France's annual revenue. In February, he called the Assembly of Notables, an assembly of the nobility, for the first time since 1626, hoping to avert bankruptcy through a package of reforms that include a land tax from which there would be no exemptions and a Stamp Tax. While the privileged classes agreed in general with the need for reform, they resisted them in every practical detail, for a variety of reasons from self-interest to the sense that France's finances needed greater oversight. After a protracted back and forth, the now heavily watered-down financial reforms were sent to the provincial assemblies for ratification. The debates in the provincial assemblies brought the fight into the public domain for the first time, and the nobility used the public attention in order to block the king's will, which quickly got out of hand with the first street protests that would become so common. The country was especially volatile at the time, because of economic deprivation brought on by the bad harvest in 1787, that would be even worse in 1788, adding to the existing grievances of the Third Estate. In the midst of this turmoil, an international crisis in September 1787 laid bare for all of Europe to see, just how weak the once mighty French had become. In recent years, the Dutch Republic had been embroiled in a factional dispute between those who advocated retaining her alliance with Britain, and those who favoured France; the Dutch had for instance allied with the colonists against the British in the American War of Independence. In September, Britain's ally Prussia briefly invaded and ousted the French faction from power, ending the Patriottentijd Upheaval (1780-87). Despite French national interest, the ministry concluded that they could not afford a military response, and did not lift a finger. With even watered-down financial reforms being blocked by the provincial assemblies, France's international reputation in tatters, and no bank willing to lend the country any more money, the royal ministers were forced to admit defeat. Unwittingly and unwisely as it would turn out, the nobility had provoked a political crisis by insisting that taxation was only valid if agreed by the full French parliament (Estates General). It was in this complex interplay of political impotence and reforming aspiration that Louis XVI called the Estates General to meet at Versailles in May 1789, for the first time in 175 years. The nobility would soon come to realise that they had more to fear from an increasingly democratic France, than an increasingly despotic king.

French Revolution: Moderate Stage in Versailles[]

"What Is the Third Estate?" a political pamphlet by clergyman Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès published in January 1789. In it he argued that the Third Estate is in fact the nation itself, and the two other orders are merely parasites.

The Estates General dated back to the 13th century when Philip II and Louis IX were consolidating royal authority over France, and was the closest thing France ever had to a national parliament, bringing together representatives of all three Estates; it had not sat since 1614, during the minority of Louis XIII. In its traditional composition each of the three Estates had an equal number of deputies, and each groups met and voted separately; thus allowing the two privileged Estates (clergy and nobility) to together out-vote the Third Estate (everyone else) on every issue. Having been forced to call the Estates General through well-orchastrated opposition, Louis XVI encouraged debate on how the assembly should be composed, hoping to divide the nobility from the commoners, and that is exactly what happened. When the nobility tried to cling to their traditional over-representation in the assembly, it utterly destroyed their political credibility, and brought the newly awakened Third Estate into political prominence. After much rancorous debate and unrest, the king eventually sided with the commoners, that the Third Estate should have double the representation, as was common in some provincial assemblies.

Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath.

On 4 May 1789, some 1,200 elected deputies convened at the Palace of Versailles for the Estate General; 600 representing the Third Estate, and 300 for each of the other two. The assembly had a number of notable characteristics: owing to the relatively open vote, the First Estate was predominantly represented by ordinary parish priests, rather than noble bishops; election for the Second Estate was restricted to the old Sword Nobility, thus was decidedly conservative; and due to the obligations of standing for election, a vast majority of those representing the Third Estate were wealthy bourgeoisie, especially lawyers. Events in the Estates General began to get out of hand almost immediately, over the issue of whether the three Estates should meet and vote separately as in the past, or as a joint assembly; the king made it clear that he favoured a joint assembly but refused to order it. The talks became deadlocked: the conservative controlled Second Estate would accept nothing less than to vote separately; the First Estate agreed with the nobility, albeit narrowly, with many of the parish priest naturally swayed by the few bishops; and the Third Estate refused to transact any business whatsoever unless they met as a joint assembly, with some delegate having been spoiling for this fight for a year. As the impasse dragged on, the Third Estate almost inevitably became more radical. On 10 June, they defiantly began transacting business as if they were the only legitimate assembly, while inviting the clergy and nobility to join them. Over the next few days, 19 clergymen indeed crossed the divide and joined them. In an attempt to regain control of the proceedings, on 20 June, Louis XVI announced that he was summoning a meeting of all three Estates in his presence, and closed the large hall where the Third Estate had been meeting to prepare for the event. What happened next is a matter for historical debate: was this a sinister attempt to stop the Third Estate from convening alone, or was it a misunderstanding. The Third Estate arrived at Versailles to find their meeting hall locked and blocked by armed guards, with no clear explanation. Indignant, they simply moved their deliberations to the nearest unlocked hall, an indoor tennis court. There they took part in the first great dramatic set-piece of the French Revolution; the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789). The delegates swore an oath to maintain their assembly until a new French constitution had been established. When the royal session finally did occur, the king decidedly failed to calm the waters. Soon a majority of the representatives of the clergy voted to join the Third Estate, as did 47 members of the nobility. On 27 June, Louis XVI caved-in, and orders all the clergy and the nobility to join in forming an official French parliament (the National Constituent Assembly) to draft a constitution for France.

A contemporary illustration of the Storming of the Bastille

While this intense political drama was acting out a few miles away at Versailles, Paris was in the throes of economic deprivation brought on by the bad harvest of 1787 and '88. The results were food shortages, soaring bread prices, and an unruly city. With this volatile situation in Paris, the king began building up troops around the capital. Many Parisians presumed Louis' actions to be aimed against the parliament, and on 12 July 1789 Paris went into open rebellion. This was encouraged in the early stages by local radical politicians, but soon got entirely out of hand, and the capital was consumed by riots, chaos, and widespread looting, especially of weapons. On 14 July, the insurgents set their eyes on the ammunition cache inside the great fortress of the Bastille, a potent symbol of royal tyranny; formerly a state prison for those who had angered the king, though now largely fallen into disuse. After several hours of fighting, the garrison within the Bastille surrendered to the mob that included some mutinous soldiers. Just seven prisoners were “liberated”, none of whom had been victims of any royal injustice; four had been convicted of forgery, two were mentally ill, and one was a wayward young noble who had been locked up at his family's request. Several of the garrison died grisly deaths after their surrender in the neighbouring streets. The drab reality of the fall of the Bastille, however, couldn’t tarnish the event as a symbol of overthrow of the Ancien Régime itself, because of what happened in the aftermath. Order was eventually restored in Paris, with the king essentially capitulating: the army was withdrawn, and control of the city given to a volunteer militia that became know as the National Guard. The National Guard would wear a tricolour cockade combining the red and blue traditional colours of Paris with the white of the House of Bourbon, thus becoming the basis of the French national flag today. The Parisian provincial assembly was also completely restructured as the Paris Commune, which would in time become the engine of the Revolution. However, while the capital was calmed, the violence spread throughout rural France that summer on a wave of revolutionary fervour and widespread hysteria, later dubbed the Great Fear. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants stopped paying taxes, looted and burned noble windmills and wine-presses, and descended on the manorhouses of landlords and homes of tax collectors. One thing above all was targeted, the records of land ownership and outstanding loans. The news of violence in many parts of France sent the parliament into a panic. Desperate to get out in front of the Revolution, on 4 August 1789 virtually all traces of feudal apparatus of the Ancien Régime were abolished, from the last pockets of serfdom to peasant work obligations, from internal tolls to noble hunting rights, from church tithes to all forms of tax exemptions. This succeeded in mollifying the angry peasantry, and the Great Fear quickly dissipated. In the coming weeks, the French parliament also issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, reminiscent of the American Bill of Rights but somewhat more aspirational and less legalistic.

An illustration of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789

The drafting a formal constitution for France proved much more of a challenge, with the parliament beginning to break into opposing camps; radicals who favoured pushing the Revolution forwards, and conservatives who advanced stability and order. The conservative camp had been bolstered by a decided shift by the clergy away from the radicals, unhappy with the violence and complete abolition of church tithes. Meanwhile, the middle ground was still very fluid, and votes went back and forth. The debates on the constitution became embroiled in rancorous factional bickering, but the progress that was being made increasing echoed the more conservative voices in the parliament. Meanwhile the streets of Paris were a hotbed of tension and hunger. The parliament were open to the public, and news came daily from a host of radical newspapers, which combined fact with counter-revolutionary conspiracy theories. Food riots had become commonplace, for although the grain harvests in 1789 were good, the summer was unusually dry, slowing the flour-mills and continuing the bread shortages. The next great turning point in the Revolution came on 5 October, when a group of some 7,000 market women began gathering in the centre of Paris angry a bread prices; the Women’s March. The disorder just kept growing, and soon began marching on Versailles to put their views to the king himself. Sympathetic with the women, the National Guard, rather than standing in their way, decided to join them, with the idea soon taking root that the best way to preserve the Revolution was to take the royal family under the National Guard's protection, rather than the army which protected Versaille. Some 10,000 women and 15,000 National Guard arrived at the palace, where they generally made a nuisance of themselves and refused to leave. A small group women even managed to sneak into the palace, where they made straight for the hated queen's bedroom, although Marie Antoinette was hustled to safety. In the end, Louis XVI was forced to agree that the royal family would relocate to the Tuileries Palace in Paris to be closer to his people, under the protection of the National Guard. The French parliament voted to move to Paris as well.

French Revolution: Moderate Stage in Paris[]

With the Women’s March on Versaille and the carrying away of the king and parliament back to Paris, a new phase of the French Revolution began. The political dynamic began to shift dramatically. Firstly, while everyone maintained the fiction that Louis XVI was a citizen king living closer to his people by his own free will, more than a few, including Louis himself, realised that he was essentially a hostage. And secondly, in moving the French parliament to Paris, in radical and tumultuous mood, the assembly was polarised even further, now least because of the simple matter of seating. At Versaille, delegates largely sat with their provincial colleagues, but with the move to Paris delegates sat with those who shared their ideological view and voting habits, conservatives on the right and radicals on the left; the origin of the political spectrum “left–wing / right-wing” in common use today. Delegates also lived differently, conservatives on the outskirts of the city from fear of the mobs, while radicals lived in the city centre where they formed political clubs such as the Jacobins. These clubs made the radicals much more organised as a voting block, and were open to the public; most of the major revolutionary figures (Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just) were members of the Jacobins. In the tug-of-war between the conservatives and the radicals, the momentum in the parliament shifted decisively towards the centre: all vestiges of noble privilege were abolished; the clergy were obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to the French nation above all others, including the pope; and vast swathes of Church land and property were nationalised, in order to pay down the country's national debt. These bold steps would be fatal to the continued unity of the French nation: beginning the steady wave of Émigré noble as implacable enemies of the Revolution, and in time killing any lingering good-will between the revolutionaries and the Church.

Louis XVI and his family, dressed as bourgeois, arrested in Varennes. Picture by Thomas Falcon Marshall (1854).

Since being dragged to Paris in October 1789, Louis XVI had seemed genuinely accepting of the Revolution and reconciled to the political concessions forced upon him. However, privately the king was disturbed that the Church was now hostile towards the Revolution, as were many people outside Paris. The pope had denounced the oath to the nation, and almost half the parish priests had refused the oath, with their flocks supporting the decision in many regions. Meanwhile, the capital was a passionate and often volatile place, fermented by uncensored newspapers and fervent debate in political clubs. Numerous nobles had already fled the country into exile, and on the night of 20 June 1791, Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and their two children decided to join them; the Royal Flight to Varennes. In disguise, the royal family succeeded in leaving the Tuileries Palace and fled Paris for the fortress of Montmédy, near the border with Austrian Belgium. However, a series of bungles and delays prevented the royal party from meeting up with the loyal soldiers intended as their escort, and in the town of Varennes the king was recognised and arrested. The royal party was dragged ignobly back to Paris.

Georges-Jacques Danton. Musée Carnavalet, Paris

The Royal Flight to Varennes lit the tinder on a simmering tension between the two factions within the Revolution: the bourgeoisie moderates who currently held sway in the French parliament and mostly feared lower-class led anarchy; and the populist radicals of the political clubs who felt the Revolution hadn’t gone far enough and mostly feared an aristocratic led counter-revolution. At the heart of the conflict was the powers that the king would have in the new regime, but also the issue of the right to vote and hold public office, and whether it would be restricted based on property and tax payment, a practice common to the British and American systems; "active / passive" citizen in the parlance of the French Revolution. The National Guard for instance had already been purged of passive citizens. In the aftermath of the royal flight, the moderates scrambled hard to salvage the situation, concocting the fiction that Louis had not tried to escape but had been an abducted, and vowing to clamp down on any radical agitation. Meanwhile, the driving force of radicals revolutionary politics in Paris at this time were people such as Georges Danton, a dynamite public speaker, and Camille Desmoulins, the publisher of a successful weekly newspaper. These radicals were enraged when the French parliament announced the transparent fiction of Louis' abduction, and on 17 July 1791, Danton organised a mass demonstration on the Champ de Mars calling for the abdication of Louis XVI. The National Guard under the Marquis de Lafayette moved in to disperse the crowd, and things quickly got out of hand; the soldiers responded to a barrage of stones by firing into the crowd. When the field was finally cleared, as many as 50 people lay dead, most trampled in the resulting panic; the Massacre of the Champ de Mars. This event irrevocably split the moderate and radical revolutionaries; the National Guard were after-all controlled, not by the king, but by the parliament. This would be a recurring theme throughout the French Revolutions; what had once seemed to be radical hope for change against an authoritarian government, suddenly became the authoritarian government as increasingly radical ideas were embraced. The schism was marked by the walkout of the moderates from the Jacobin Club, which in time would allow Maximilien Robespierre to solidify his own personal control and streamline its ideology; the moderates formed their own clubs such as the Girondins and the Feuillants.

The short-lived French Constitution of 1791, the first written constitution in France.

Yet in the wake of the massacre at the Champ de Mars, it seemed that the radical revolutionary movement had been suppressed: some 200 activists were arrested; others went into hiding, with Georges Danton himself slipping across the Channel for a while; and political clubs and freedom of the press were restricted. The French parliament meanwhile got back to the business of putting the final touches to Constitution of 1791, which was finally adopted in September, three months after the Royal Flight to Varennes. It established France as a constitutional monarchy: a legislative parliament with a single elected house (the Legislative Assembly); an executive branch in which the king was something more than a mere figurehead, unable to unilaterally declare war, but with a suspensive veto on legislation passed by parliament; a streamline judicial system and Church; and retaining the right to vote and hold public office based on property and tax payment. Louis XVI had little option but to sign-up to the first constitution in the history of France, that swept into the dustbin of history the Ancien Régime, institutions and abuses that had plagued the country for centuries. France had taken the same crucial step into modernity that Britain had in 1689 and the United State had in 1788; the French system of government was not particularly progressive but not dissimilar to those. It now seemed to many that the French Revolution was winding down, and might have but for a decision made by parliament early in the drafting process. In order to signal that parliament had no intention of permanently seizing power, delegates had agreed to a self-denying proviso; members of the old parliament (National Assembly) were barred from sitting in the first session of the new parliament (Legislative Assembly). This meant that not one single man who had a hand in crafting the new constitution would be there to defend it when it came under attack. As old divisions that had taken over two years for the old parliament to heal were reopened, the Revolution was about to take a giant lurch towards the radicals.

French Revolution: Radical Stage[]

The newly elected French parliament (Legislative Assembly) met for the first time on 1 October 1791. This assembly had a number of notable differences from its predecessor beyond the obvious fact that there were none of the same men: there were very few former nobles or clergy, who had made up half of the old parliament; these were not inexperience statesmen with most having worked for at least two years in provincial government of Revolutionary Franch; and while there was strong representation from the radical left-wing, the moderates still seemed to be in the ascendancy, after-all these were all active citizens elected by active citizen. The moderate factions soon became known as the Girondins, because many of the leading figures hailed from the region of Gironde surrounding Bordeaux. Tension within the new parliament began to rise over the threat to the Revolution posed by the many Émigré nobles in exile throughout Europe. When a sweeping anti-Émigré law was passed ordering nobles to return to France within a months or forfeit all property, Louis XVI pulled out his suspensive veto. While perfectly legal according to the constitution, it played into the widely held conspiracy theory that the king was not committed to the Revolution, but merely playing for time until he could launch the counter-revolutionary coup supposedly being plotted by the Émigrés and the hated Austrians. Yet the king did agree to an ultimatum that states neighbouring France must expel the Émigrés or face war with France. Most of the German states acquiesced, but the Austrians met the ultimatum with defiance, issuing the Declaration of Pillnitz on 12 April 1792 which declared a willingness to use force if necessary to protect Louis XVI; Marie Antoinette was the sister of the Austrian emperor Leopold II. War was now inevitable, with all sides eager for their own reasons: the French parliament expected a quick victory that would legitimise their new regime; the Austrians and their Prussian allies expected a quick victory with the French army in disarray; and the king was happy with either outcome, victory would increase his own popularity, while defeat could be exploited to roll back the Revolution. Everybody anticipated a short war, instead the French Revolutionary War (1792-1802) and subsequent Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) would last a generation. In accordance with the constitution, Louis XVI together with the French parliament declared war on 20 April 1792. The first campaign of the war, the French invasion of Austrian Belgium, was an utter debacle. The French Revolution had wreaked havoc on the French army, which during the Ancien Régime was built on an exclusively noble officer class, almost 60% of whom had already slipped over the border into exile.

Depiction of the storming of the Tuileries Palace during the Insurrection of 10 August 1792.

With the war off to a bad start, the fear inside Paris magnified into a willingness of everyone to see enemies everywhere. As the parliament descending into squabbling over a scapegoat which invariably centred on the royal family, the radical leaders of Paris, dormant since the Massacre of the Champ de Mars (July 1791), were galvanised into forceful action. The spark came when the Austro-Prussian commander issued the Brunswick Manifesto (1 August 1792) threatening punitive action against the people of Paris if any harm should come to Louis XIV. A lower-class radical mob known as the Sans Culottes and led by Georges Danton began planning a coup d'etat to overthrow the monarchy, with the support of many in the National Guard; the Insurrection of 10 August 1792. With the war, the National Guard in Paris had been reinforced by volunteers from the provinces, including a particularly boisterous group from Marseilles, who entered the capital singing a new patriotic anthem; known today as La Marseillaise, the French national anthem. On the night of 10 August 1792, the radicals set about seizing control of Paris: the old Paris Commune was expelled; and the National Guard was taken over, and when the old commander resisted, he was arrested and executed. Next some 20,000 insurgents turned to the Tuileries Palace, home of the royal family and the French parliament. The 900 Swiss Guards protecting the palace were overwhelmed and killed in a bloody frenzy, and the king and his family taken prisoner. In the aftermath, with most of the moderate members of parliament gone into hiding, the rump parliament dissolved itself and called for fresh elections based on universal male-suffrage; removing the "active / passive" restrictions of tax-paying and property-owning thresholds for voters and candidates. With the insurrection cast as a necessary response to a vaguely defined counter-revolutionary royalist conspiracy, mobs shutdown conservative newspapers, established a network of spies and informants to root out conspirators, and issued a warrant for the arrest of Marquis de Lafayette, the commander of the National Guard on the day of the Massacre of the Champ de Mars, although he managed to slip into exile. In a prelude to the Reign of Terror to come, some 3,000 supposed conspirators were arrested, and a few were tried-and-executed via a recently invented device for humane capital punishment, the notorious guillotine. Some 1,300 of the prisoners were subsequently killed in a wave of mob violence, which swept Paris when news reached the capital of the Austro-Prussians army that had invaded France; the September Massacres.

"Day of 21 January 1793 the death of Louis Capet on the Place de la Révolution" – French engraving. Louis Capet was a mocking name given by the revolutionaries to Louis XIV, based on Hugh Capet, the first king of France.

The newly elected parliament (National Convention) met for the first time on 20 September 1792, the same day the French revolutionary army won its first decisive victory of the war; forcing the invading Austro-Prussian army to withdraw from France after victory at the Battle of Valmy (September 1792). The characteristic of this assembly was that: the Paris delegates were very left-wing, and read like a who’s who of radical Revolutionary politics - Georges Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, Jean-Paul Marat, and Louis Antoine de Saint-Just; yet the provincial delegates were much more moderate, and included all the prominent Girondins from the old parliament, as well as many returning members from the original Estates General. The new parliament was almost inevitably the most fractious assembly yet: the Parisian radicals felt themselves inexorably in ascendancy after the Insurrection of 10 August 1792; while the provincial moderates reviled the disproportionate influence of the violent mobs of Paris. The first order of business however did manage to bring everyone together, with parliament voting unanimously to abolish the monarchy, and to declare France a republic. It was the question of what to actually do with the king that drew the battle-lines between the radicals and the moderates. Unlike the trial in the English parliament where Charles I simply refused to recognise the legality of the court, in the trial of King Louis XVI in the French parliament, the king put-up a vigorous defense justifying his actions as perfectly legal. After four months of rancorous debate, the quasi-legal trial narrowly voted to condemn him to death. On 21 January 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on the Place de la Révolution; today the Place de la Concorde.

The Battle of Cholet (October 1793) during the provincial revolt in the Vendée, during which 25,000 rebels tried to take the port-city of Granville.

The death of the French king provoked Britain, Holland, Spain, and Portugal to join the coalition against France, and prompted the French parliament to introduce compelled conscription to the army. This in turn lit the spark on a host of resentments at the Revolution in the provinces. Open Provincial Revolts erupted in Brittany, Anjou, Marseilles, Lyon, and the biggest in the Vendée. Many rebels were devote Catholics resentful at the Revolutions hostility to the Church. Almost half the French clergy refused to take the oath to the nation which the Pope had denounced. Mostly parliament had treated such parish priests leniently, allowing them to hold unofficial services in hope of reconciling with the Church. However with the war, parliament cracked down hard on this practice. Yet there were a many root causes behind the revolts: peasants angry at wealthy towns-people who had bought-up the newly available land, and invariably treated them worse than their old landlords; merchants, industrialists, and workers whose livelihoods were going from bad to worse because of the war; and resentment the disproportionate power of the radicals and violent mobs of Paris, centralising power in the capital.

Robespierre c. 1790 (anonymous), Musée Carnavalet, Paris

The demagogues in the French parliament well quick to argue that these provincial revolts were evidence of a sinister royalist counter-revolutionary plot at work. In response, a powerful twelve man executive branch of government (the Committee of Public Safety) was created with George Danton at it centre to react to these internal and external threats to the nation; the institution through which the coming Reign of Terror would be implemented. It also saw parliament lapsed into an extreme example of political in-fighting between the moderate Girondins and radical Jacobins; in the case of the Purge of the Girondins literally lethal. The Jacobins were not at first directly involved in this latest outbreak of violence on the streets of Paris that would lead to the purge. Instead, with the old street-leaders now sitting in parliament, a new generation of radical firebrands such Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert had emerged, who became known as the Enragés. On 2 June 1793, a mob of some 80,000 armed Parisians surrounded the parliament, and prevented the members from leaving until they agreed to arrest of 29 leading Girondins. The fall-out of the Enragés insurrection, exposed the next fatal rift within the parliament. With the Girondins imprisoned, George Danton and his allies argued that the Revolution was now secure, and saw no further need for victimisation. Meanwhile, the ultra-radicals led by Maximilien Robespierre were determined to secure their own radical version of the revolution by eliminating all opposition. On 13 July 1793, Paris was rocked by an incident that gave the ultra-radicals a bonafide martyr to further cement their hold on the course of the Revolution. The Purge of the Girondins had only escalated the Provincial Revolts across the nation, which spread to Bordeaux, Normandy, and Toulon. A young woman from Normandy called Charlotte Corday travelled to Paris and stabbed to death Jean-Paul Marat, the most poisonous voice of the ultra-radicals; an insufferable colleague had become a useful martyr. Danton, the voice of moderation, was no longer the mood of the French parliament, and he was removed from his position on the executive branch of government (the Committee of Public Safety). In his place, Maximilien Robespierre became the dominant figure and its leading ideologue.


Gradually the executive branch of government (the Committee of Public Safety) acquired the ruthlessly unaccountable powers of a police state, determined to crush the Revolution's enemies through what became known as the dark and bloody Reign of Terror. It really kicked-off in October 1793 with the show-trial and execution of Marie Antoinette; her surviving son would die in prison two years later from neglect. This was followed by 22 of the arrested Girondins. As they went to the guillotine, they defiantly sang La Marseillaise; it was time to the Revolution to eat its own children. Other notable victims included Jean Sylvain Bailly, the man who presided over the Tennis Court Oath that started the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the bulk of the Terror's victims were not major political figures, but obscure men and women out in the provinces that were currently in revolt: of the 16,594 official victims, 8,700 came from the Vendée, 1,900 from Lyon, and 1,300 Marseilles. Some of these “enemies of the state” died for their political opinions or actions, others for little beyond mere suspicion, and still others were denounced by political enemies or petty rivals.

Danton and his Companions on the way to the Guillotine.

By early 1794, the threats to France seemed to have declined dramatically: the Provincial Revolts were on the wane; and the external threat posed by the war was turning in France's favour. George Danton, one of the revolution’s most powerful orators, began to vigorously argue for the Reign of Terror to end. His argument was inevitably a criticism of Maximilien Robespierre himself. At the end of March 1794, the executive took the risk of ordering the arrest of Danton and his closest associates. Their trial was a complete farce, with fabricated evidence, a hand-picked jury, and eloquent defendants unable to defend themselves. On 5 April 1794, Danton and 14 other of the most dedicated revolutionaries were guillotined. These were the same men who had taken down the Bastille, overthrown the monarchy, sentenced Louis XIV to death, and defended the Revolution every step of the way; the Revolution was devouring some of her most beloved children.

French Revolution: The Directory[]

A representation of Maximilien Robespierre wounded and lying on a table on the morning of his execution after the Thermidorian Reaction coup.

Maximilien Robespierre’s power was now absolute, or so it seemed. With no end in sight to the Reign of Terror, and prominent figures like Danton going to the guillotine, a group of conspirators were brought together by little more than a shared fear that the Terror would soon be turned on them. At its centre was Paul Barras, a member of parliament with a reputation for corruption making him a target for the incorruptible Robespierre, and Lazare Carnot, the Minister of War, infuriated at parliament's incessant interference in the military. On 27 July 1794, during a speech to the French parliament, the conspirators launched a planned denunciation of Robespierre as a tyrant, while others prevented him from defending himself. With his voice failing him, parliament ordered Robespierre arrested, together with Saint-Just and his other close allies; the Thermidorian Reaction. A street mob marched on parliament and even succeeded in freeing the prisoners, but their support was feeble and they were surrounded that night by troops at the Hôtel de Ville. A number of the faction tried to commit suicide, including Robespierre himself, who botched the attempt and shattered his jaw with a pistol-shot. The next day, the 22 men were guillotined, including the half-consious Maximilien Robespierre with a handkerchief holding on his hanging jaw. 83 more members of the Robespierre faction were carried to the guillotine the following day. With their purge, the blood lust of the Reign of Terror at last died, though in the coming months acts of revenge against Jacobins involved in the Terror would become commonplace in many parts of the country; the Jacobin Club itself would be ordered to close in November.

Portrait of Paul Barras, the dominant figure of the Directory.

The events of Thermidor could in some ways be considered the end of the French Revolution as a social experiment. From now on, the Revolution would be about picking through the vast array of reforms unleashed over the past five years, permanently cementing those that worked well, and tossing aside those that did not; to safeguard the perceived benefits, and avoid any lurches to either extreme. The new regime, which became known as The Directory (1794-99), was less idealistic and more cynical; somewhat reminiscent of the Rump Parliament during the English Civil War. They would annul election results they didn't like, put down popular revolts by force, and do anything to stay in power. The Directory eventually formalised its structure in the Constitution of the Year III (22 August 1795): a five man executive branch of government (The Directory): a fuller role for a bicameral parliament in the political process including the government budget; each election would be for one third of the 750 seats in parliament to ensure stability; and the replacement of universal male-suffrage, with the old active / passive restriction on the right to vote and hold public office. The new constitution was clearly a step backwards from full democracy, which caused much agitation in political circles in Paris. Meanwhile, although parliament was supposed to annually elect one new member to the five man executive, Paul Barras and his closest colleagues found clever ways to remain on the executive throughout the five years of the Directory.

Napoleon Bonaparte's quelling of the Royalist revolt, 13 Vendémiaire, in front of the Église Saint-Roch, Saint-Honoré Street, Paris.

Yet the dilemma facing the Directory in stabilising France was daunting. An initial sense of euphoria at the end of the Terror, was rapidly followed by the continuation of the French Revolution's underlying problems. The British naval blockade was devastating the French economy. The winter of 1794-'95 was particularly cold, and, with the army having first dibs on all the nations resources, bread again became scarce. This combined with hyper-inflation resulting from the over-printing of currency throughout the last five years; one aspect of the Terror had been to force prices down, and with its end the currency dropped to 8% of its value. In echo of 1789, the economic hardship of 1795 made the streets of Paris volatile, with food riots becoming commonplace. The Directory had long cracked down hard on left-wing radicals, often turning a blind eye to right-wing mobs in order to do it. Thus it was the long dormant right-wing Royalists who came out of the woodwork to use this mood of unrest in Paris for their own ends; the restoration of the monarchy based around Louis XVI's exiled brother, Louis XVIII. On 5 October 1795, the wealthy western sections of Paris went into open revolt, and some 25,000 armed Royalists marched on the French parliament; the Insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire. This insurrection would bring to the stage of world history a 26 year-old artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon was born in Corsica in 1769, making him a native French citizen by just fifteen months; the often rebellious island had been sold by Genoa to France in 1768. The young Corsican was educated in the military academy at Brienne-le-Château, where he was treated as an outsider, fuelling an interest in radical politics. He had made his name in the French Revolutionary Wars at the Siege of Toulon (1793), and just happened to be in Paris at the time; feigning illness until an opportunity suitable for an ambitious glory hunter like himself came along. The French parliament turned to Napoléon to lead some 5,000 troops in defense the seat of government in the Tuileries Palace. He quickly appreciated that the straight streets around the Tuileries provided perfect choke-points, and that the issue may be decided by a few cannon rather than thousands of muskets, and order 40 guns brought from a camp six miles from Paris. During the afternoon of 5 October columns of rank upon rank of armed men approached the Tuileries, but had barely exchanged musket fire with parliament’s troops, when the first volleys of grapeshot from Napoleon’s cannons tore into them. While Napoléon's biography would later claim that he had cleared the streets with a mere “whiff of grapeshot”, in reality a fierce and close-run street fight raged for some six hours, until the insurgents finally scattered after running low on ammunition, with isolated skirmishes continuing through to the next morning. The Insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire was the last major popular Parisian uprising of the French Revolution. It also wound-up being an important milestone in Napoléon’s career, for he was rewarded with the command of the French army in the Italian Alps where he would make himself the most celebrated general in all of France.

The arrest of the Royalist members of parliament during the Coup of 18 Fructidor, which marked The Directory's transition into an institution that would simply do anything to stay in power.

The four remaining years of the Directory, with occasional changes of personnel among the five Directors, saw the moderates fending off attacks from both wings of the political spectrum: the left-wing demanding a more radical democracy, and the right-wing scheming for a restoration of the monarchy. Continuing food shortages and chronic inflation at first favoured the leftist former Jacobin cause. The opportunity for another crackdown on the left came with the rise of political extremist François-Noël Babeuf. In his weekly newspaper, Babeuf railed a new class of wealthy property speculators who were using the current economic hardship in France, to buy up land for a fraction of its value. He famously called for the abolition of private property, which has led many later scholars to describe him as an early advocate of Communism. Babeuf's rather inept plot to stage a coup, provided the Directory with the pretext to have him arrested and guillotined, as well as to close many of the radical political clubs and publications. However, the government crackdown on the left, caused the pendulum to swing the other way. After the failure of the Insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire, Royalists inside France turned their attention to the ballot-box, in the hope of achieving their ends by dismantling the hated Republic from the inside. The war was going well, and Napoleon's campaigns bringing the wealth of Italy and peace with Austria were just around the corner. However the main focus of the election of April 1797 were the French economy and the ongoing chronic inflation. The conservative Royalists exploited the economic hardship to argue for a return to stability and monarchy, and virtually swept the election for one-third of parliament; of 240 seats, just 11 incumbents retained their seats and of the new members 182 were Royalists. One more election result like this one and the Royalists might even have a working majority in parliament. The opportunity to counter this Royalist wave came during the summer of 1797, when a long-term senior member of parliament was exposed as having been a secret Royalist all along, who had had treasonous correspondence with Louis XVIII, the brother of the executed king. On 4 September 1797, Parisians woke-up to find that The Directory had called in the French army to occupy the capital. The Coup of 18 Fructidor was carried out quickly and professionally. With the full support of the army, and a propaganda campaign that prevented push-back or fighting in the streets, 177 members of the Royalist faction were purged from parliament, 55 of whom were arrested and exiled. After 18 Fructidor, The Directory conducted its affairs in an increasingly dictatorial and reactionary manner: freedom of the press was largely abolished; and Émigré nobles who had returned to France were again order to leave. Ultimately the legitimacy of the Directory was destroyed by the Coup of 22 Floréal, in which, despite absolutely rampant vote manipulation, the election of 1798 was annulled,

abolished freedom of the press, and purged conservatives from all levels of government

The rampant vote manipulation by the Directory in the election of 1798 would ultimately destroy all of the government’s credibility, and it became synonymous with corruption and self-interest. In the aftermath, inflammatory radical clubs reappear and

It seemed as if the swing of the pendulum from extreme to extreme must be an unending process, unless stopped by another and more drastic coup d’état; the Coup of 18 Brumaire.

French Revolutionary War[]


On the eve of Revolution, the French army like French society was fundamentally maladjusted. Instead of modernising, the army had become a stronghold of aristocratic privilege: the upper chain of command was the exclusive preserve of the nobility, even to the exclusion of the new Robe Nobility; professional career soldiers who were good at their jobs, could not be promoted above Captain, while slaving under the command of young nobles only in it for the fancy hats; and the common soldiers were subjected to draconian punishments. As the Revolution gathered pace, the army was further disrupted, with mutinies by soldiers becaming commonplace, and by late 1791 some 60% of senior noble officers had already slipped over the border into exile. The first campaign of the French Revolutionary War (1792-1802) was an attempted French invasion of Austrian Belgium, hoping the local population would rise against Austrian rule, as they had a few years earlier. When the Belgians failed to do so, the French were forced into a ignoble and shambolic withdrawal; soldiers deserted en-masse and, in some cases, even murdered their own general. In August 1792, less than two weeks after the Insurrection of 10 August 1792, the allied army of Austrians, Prussians, and French Émigrés launched their invasion of France, and within two weeks captured the fortress of Verdun, the last fortress between the allies and Paris. Yet the invaders were defeated at the Battle of Valmy (September 1792), in which the French artillery distinguished itself; at this point in history, the French had the best artillery units in Europe. Though far from a decisive defeat, the Austro-Prussian army subsequently withdrew from France; the reasons are unclear, but seemingly the Prussians, distracted by the ongoing Partition of Poland (1772- 96), assessed that the campaign would be longer than predicted. This unexpected success gave a huge boost to French morale, and was soon followed by others. The French again crossed the border into Austrian Belgium, this time defeating the Austrians at the Battle of Jemappes (November 1792) and taking complete control of the country. Down south the French enjoyed a similar run of success. On the Mediterranean coast the independent petty state of Savoy around Nice was overrun. Along the west side of the Rhine, great strides were made against the constellation little German principalities, with Worms and Mainz captured and even Frankfurt briefly occupied.

French Revolutionary War 1793-94.png

This astonishing turnaround from invaded to invader, owed something to the desire for reform by many people within the annexed regions, but the key factor was the unprecedented nature of the French armies. Since the outbreak of the war, tens-of-thousands of raw but passionate volunteers had signed-up for the army. These early victories owed much to sheer weight of numbers; France invaded Belgium with 38,000, almost double the defending force in the entire country. From August 1793, France would became the first country to attempt national conscription, drafting bachelors and childless widowers between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. With every disaffected man of rank having already deserted their post, commanding them was an officer coup fully committed to the Revolution, promoted on merit, and gaining invaluable experience from these early easy victories. Gradually the war gained its ideological premise, that Revolutionary France was on the march, would offer aid to any oppressed peoples, and would implement revolutionary principles in all the "liberated" lands from abolishing the remnants of feudalism to new taxes for the rich.

Lazare Marguerite, known as the Organiser of Victory in the French Revolutionary Wars.

Meanwhile, the British joined the alliance against the French in February 1793, soon after the execution of Louis XVI. The decision had little to do with sympathy for Louis or even fear that the revolution would spread; 18th-century statecraft was not so sentimental. Instead, it was the presence of French armies on the border of the Dutch Republic, where Britain and France had been rivals for influence in recent decades. It did not take long for British diplomats to encircle France by a hostile coalition: Austria, Prussia, Britain, Holland, Portugal, Spain, and parts of Italy. No one deserves more credit for France's survival than Lazare Carnot, who first introduced the concept of Total War, the commitment of all the nations resources to the war. The new policy of conscription, which by 1794 saw 750,000 men under arms, enabled France to keep large armies in the field, facing in every hostile direction. They were known by their regions; the armies of the North, of the Ardennes, of the Moselle, of the Alps, of Italy, and of the Pyrenees. The French army faced, not just all the enemies arrayed against it, but also intense interference in the military by parliament during the Reign of Terror years; prudence and caution became associated with treason, and defeat in the field could lead to the guillotine. Yet the coalition against France had its own challenge of a chronic inability to cooperate effectively; Britain entered the war to defend the Dutch Republic which her allies had no interest in, while Austria and Prussia were distracted by the Partition of Poland. Thus the issue was evenly matched and the years 1793 and 1794 were spent in inconclusive campaigns around the French borders. One of these, at Toulon, was the first serious taste of action for an unknown young artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte. In August '93, the port-city of Toulon, the home of the French Mediterranean fleet, had been handed to the British navy over by French rebel. He had been promoted to head of artillery when his commander was wounded, and his artillery tactics and his leadership played a crucial role in the assault of the city, devising and leading the attack on a key British fortification, that finally broke the siege in December.


With the Thermidorian Reaction coup of July 1794, the French parliament's interference in the war came to an end, and with it the French again began to make ground. In January 1795, the French invaded the Dutch Republic, where they were genuinely greeted as liberators by the native Dutch; under the House of Orange it had become little more than a satellite of the British government. By the spring, the British had withdrawn from the continent, abandoning the strategic objective than had brought them into the war in the first place. Prussia, occupied with partitioning Poland, gradually lapsed into neutrality, formalised in the Peace of Basel (April). Meanwhile, a series of French victories persuaded the Spain to also make peace in July, in return for restoring the pre-war borders; Spain would eventually switch sides and ally with the French in August 1796. Thus the only serious enemies still at war with France were Austria and Britain. By this stage, the British were only interested in blockading French ports, and seizing colonial holdings on the other side of the world: French Martinique and Spanish Trinidad in the Caribbean; Spanish Minorca in the Mediterranean; Dutch Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean; and thriving Dutch Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa.

General Bonaparte gives his orders at his legenary victory at The Battle of Lodi, by Louis-François, Baron Lejeune

The French strategy devised for the campaign of 1796, was for the French army to go on the offensive against Austria to the north of the Alps, with the central prize being the rich fortress-city of Mainz. At the same time, a secondary front would be opened in northern Italy to tie-up Austrian resources. However, the main thrust of the campaign to north of the Alps proved fruitless, while spectacular results were achieved in the south by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon, as a reward for his suppression of the Insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire, had been given his first field command over the campaign in Italy. This was probably intended to stymie his ferocious ambition, for the French army of Italy was an obscure front, with 60,000 demoralised and mutinous soldiers. Joining the army in early March, he set to work immediately, reorganising and re-disciplining his men, and pouring over maps and intelligence reports to plan his campaign; Napoleon’s First Italian Campaign (1792–97). Instead of taking the obvious route along the coast, at the end of the month, Napoleon force-marched his army over one of the Alpine passes, catching the Austrians and Sardinians completely by surprise, and delivering a rapid series of minor victories against the Austrians, that lifted his men's spirit and held-out the promise of rich loot under this energetic young general. This left the French in between a Sardinian army to the west, and the remaining Austrians to the east. In a series of battles that culminated in the Battle of Lodi (May), Napoleon beat the Sardinians so badly that it knocked them out of the war, and gave the Austrians a mauling that sent them into a disorganised retreat. This was the first great example of Napoleon’s strategy of the central position that he would return to over and over again throughout his career; when confronted by two armies, plunge between them, prevent them from linking up, overwhelm one, and then turn around and overwhelm the other. It was also at Lodi that Napoleon first earned his nickname The Little Corporal; always interested in the minutiae of warfare, he allegedly took to sighting some of the heavy cannons himself, a job usually done by a corporal. The road to the great city of Milan was now wide open to the French, which the they entered five days after Lodi. The French army now controlled all of north-western Italy, some of the richest land in Europe, and the rest of Italy, including the Papal State, eagerly came to terms with Napoleon in exchange for peace. A steady stream of booty from bullion to art-work began make its way from Italy back to Paris, to restock the depleted French treasury; among the loot was the famous bronze horses from St Mark’s in Venice, which had originally been looted from Constantinople by the Venetian's in 1202. What the French had not been able to accomplish in three years, Napoleon had achieved in two months.


The central focus for the rest of the year was the protracted struggle for the key Austrian defensive fortress in northern Italy, Mantua. The Austrians launched a series of four offensives to break the siege, but in some hard fought campaigns Napoleon defeated every relief effort. After eight months, with no further hope of help, Mantua finally capitulated in early February 1797, signalling the collapse of the Austrian position in all of Italy. Napoleon barely took the time to consolidate his position before setting out on an audacious march aiming straight for the Austrian capital of Vienna, before they had a chance to organise a proper defence. Reinforced with 40,000 men, and with the defenders too scattered to resist, Napoleon advanced through Austrian territory at will. All the way, he kept up a constant dialogue with Vienna, asking if the Austrian emperor was interested in an armistice. In mid-April, Napoleon was at Leoben, just 100 miles from the capital, when real talks to put a stop to the fighting got going in earnest. The war was formally brought to a close with the Treaty of Campo Formio (October 1797), in which Austria officially ceded Austrian Belgium and northern Italy to France. Controversially, Napoleon gave Venice to Austria in compensation, horse-trading territories like the most arrogant autocratic king.


With peace restored to the continent, only France's traditional enemy stood against her, Britain. Napoleon Bonaparte was recalled from Italy, and order to prepare for a fullblown invasion across the Channel. However, his tour of the coast from Normandy to Belgium in February 1798 convinced him that an invasion of Britain was unwise until France had command of the seas; it's also likely that he was reluctant to bet his glittering reputation on such a risky campaign. Instead he proposed a much more exotic course of action; Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign (1798–1801). He argued that the seizure of Ottoman Egypt by France would harm British commercial interests in India. In March 1798 the Directors approved his plan, perhaps welcoming the opportunity to send this popular and ambitious general far from the centre of power. Napoleon moved quickly, and on May 19 twenty-seven warships and hundreds of other vessels, carrying 38,000 troops, sailed from Toulon and four other ports on their journey to the east. Along for the journey were some 150 of France’s most distinguished men of science to report on this ancient oriental civilization, in part to begin work on the Suez Canal. The voyage was dangerous because the British were well aware that something other than an invasion of Britain was being planned, and had sent into the Mediterranean a strong naval squadron under Admiral Horatio Nelson, who would go on to be Britain's most celebrated naval heroes.

However, Napoleon was lucky and reached Egypt unobserved at the end of June. Alexandria was taken, and the army marched south through heat and drought towards Cairo. At the Battle of the Pyramids (21 July), the French formed up in solid six-deep divisional squares, and their fire-power devastated the wild charges of the Egyptian Mameluke cavalry. Victory delivered Cairo and all Egypt to Napoleon. His team of scientists could now begin to studies; in the following year, a French officer found the Rosetta Stone. However, eight days after Napoleon entered Cairo, Nelson finally came across the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir Bay, and destroyed it at the Battle of the Nile (1 August). Napoleon, master of Egypt, was now stranded in his new colony, and moreover had provoked a new enemy; Ottoman Turkey.

The painting Napoleon visiting the plague victims of Jaffa, by Antoine-Jean Gros (1804)

By February 1799, a Turkish army was preparing to march south through Syria and Palestine, but Napoleon moved first. Although Napoleon’s Syrian campaign succeeded in stalling the Ottoman overland invasion, it provides another dire example of European brutality in Palestine in the bleak tradition of the Crusades. Frustrated after the delays in taking El Arish and Gaza, at Jaffa the three-thousand Ottoman defenders were all executed with bayonetted to conserve ammunition. This event was rapidly followed by plague in the French army, and by the famous moment of flamboyant courage when Napoleon visited the sick in the hospital at Jaffa. By early June, the bedraggled French army were back in Cairo. The Ottoman forces were instead transported to Egypt by a British fleet, only to suffer a crushing defeat at the Battle of Aboukir (25 July). However, by now news had arrived from France that the political situation in Paris was increasingly unstable, with The Directory distrusted and discredited. On 24 August 1799, Napoleon set sail for France in secret, abandoning the remnants of his army. The French army would finally be expelled from Egypt in 1801 by a combined Turkish and British forces.

Napoléon’s Coup of 18 Brumaire[]

Bonaparte during the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, painting by François Bouchot, 1840

The French army and its success had long been legitimising force behind The Directory, occasionally even taking direct steps to put-down opposition, such as Napoleon Bonaparte's suppression of the Insurrection of 13 Vendémiaire. Yet over time, the army was transformed into an institution with its own interests, which up until now had aligned with those of the government: an esprit de corp based on a tight-knit cabal of junior and senior officers; and armies living off the lands they invaded, whose allegiance was not to their government but to generals who could bring victory. No French general delivered spectacular victory, after spectacular victory like Napoléon Bonaparte.

By 1799, two of the great survivors of the years of revolutionary turmoil, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès and Charles-Maurice Tallyrand, had concluded that France’s political chaos required military intervention. Within weeks of Napoleon’s return to the Paris on 16 October, they were actively engaged in planning a coup; the Coup of 18 Brumaire. A false rumour of an imminent Jacobin plot against the Directory was the first step; Napoleon was given command of all available local troops. On 9 November 1799, those Directors who were not in the plot were arrested, and the parliament was surrounded by Napoleon’s troops. A quorum of terrified members of parliament were then rounded up, and persuaded to formally end the Directory and swear loyalty to a new provisional executive of three men; Sieyès, Roger Ducos, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Over the next month, Sieyès and Ducos were browbeaten by supposedly junior partner Napoleon into drafting a new French constitution. The constitution accepted in December provided an executive first consul, supported by advisory second and third consuls, and “checked” by no less than four assemblies of differing functions; a calculated recipe for political inertia except at the very top where the first consul would have virtually unlimited powers. It was no surprise that the first consul was to be Napoleon, with a Jacobin and a Royalist as second and third consuls to appease both factions. When the constitution was put to a national referendum in February 1800 it passed by 3,011,007 votes to only 1562. After ten years of upheaval and terror, the French were ready to accept dictatorial rule by a man from neither faction who was decisive, professionally equipped to direct France’s wars, and sympathetic to the principles of the Revolution. Napoleon Bonaparte and the times were well suited to each other.

Haitian Revolution[]

Posthumous painting of Toussaint L'Ouverture

Just as the French were transforming their society, so were the Haitians in the only successful slave rebellions in modern history. By the late 18th century, Haiti was France’s wealthiest overseas colony, based largely on sugar and coffee plantations. It was also home to more slaves than any other place except for Brazil; 90% of the population. Colonial society in French Haiti was divided into four distinct groups: the Big Whites or plantation owners; then the Little Whites or poorer whites; below them were the wealthy free people-of-colour; and at the bottom the overwhelming majority, the slaves. When word of the French Revolution reached Haiti, a number of Haitian-born revolutionary movements emerged simultaneously. Then when the French revolutionary government granted full French citizenship to free people-of-colour in May 1793, it quickly descend into a three-sided civil war between the Big White, Little Whites, and the free people-of-colour. However, all three groups would be challenged by the enslaved black masses. In August 1791, a massive slave revolt erupted on the island. Amongst the leaders was Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who had served his master as a coachman and achieved some degree of literacy. L’Ouverture helped mould the slaves into a disciplined army that could withstand attacks from the French troops, and by 1792 they controlled a third of the island. In 1793, the British who were at war with France invaded Haiti, but after a series of defeats against L’Ouverture’s forces, they withdrew five years later. Thereafter, L’Ouverture steadily established himself as the strongest of the various black leaders. By 1801, he had expanded the revolution and conquered the Spanish side of the island (modern-day Dominican Republic). He abolished slavery in the Spanish-speaking colony also, and declared himself Governor-General for life over the entire island.


L’Ouverture proved himself an able and flexible administrator, even inviting several former French colonists to return to their plantations, although he strictly ensured that their ex-slaves got to work as free labourers. He also signed trade agreements with powers such as the United States and Britain. L’Ouverture’s good fortune was that the war with Britain made it impossible for France to send out troops to suppress his insurrection. However his luck runs out in 1801, when the two exhausted European enemies agree to the peace. In 1802, General Charles Leclerc was dispatched by his brother-in-law Napoleon Bonaparte to restore both French rule and slavery. L’Ouverture was captured, and sent back to France where he died in prison in 1803. Nevertheless, the Haitian Revolution continued under his lieutenant, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, a leader very much more extreme than L’Ouverture. The renewal of war with Britain in 1803, combined with the ravages of yellow fever, led to the defeat of the French forces at the Battle of Vertieres (November 1803). In January 1804, Dessalines declared the nation independent, and massacred those French who still remained on the island. Nevertheless, France became the first nation to recognize its independence. Haiti thus emerged as the first black republic in the world, and the second nation in the Americas, after the United States, to win its independence from a European power. Independence would not bring peace to Haiti with political instability prevalent into the 20th century; Dessalines himself was killed attempting to put down a revolt in 1806.

Britain and Ireland[]

While chaos reigned in France, Britain faced her own financial crisis after the expense of the American War of Independence. However, she also had one of her most talented Prime Ministers in William Pitt the Younger (1783-1806 AD). Pitt would in many ways define the role of the British Prime Minister as the co-ordinator of the various government departments. He set to work on a series of well-judged and effective measures to repair the national finances. He greatly simplifies the tax system, while taking strong measures to end smuggling. He also tried to open up Britain as a free market economy based on the ideas of social philosopher Adam Smith, although his efforts were largely frustrated. However, the heady achievements of the American and French Revolutions would inspire trouble for the British in Ireland.

Portrait of Wolfe Tone by his daughter-in-law, Mrs. Sampson Tone

With the French Revolution raging, Irish patriots were inspired to form political clubs. Irish Catholics were obviously suffering under the draconian Penal Laws, but Protestants born in Ireland also had their reasons for resenting British rule: newly arrived English Protestants often secured the best public offices in government and the Irish Protestant Church; and Irish commerce suffered from harmful tariffs designed to protect British agriculture and industry. In 1791, the United Irishmen was formed by Wolfe Tone, a moderate Protestant, arguing for liberal reform, Catholic emancipation, and maybe even independence. In response, the Orange Order was formed in 1795 by the hard-line Protestants to resist such Irish nationalism. Wolfe Tone travelled to Paris to try and secure French assistance. By 1776, with the war going well on the continent, the French were open to the idea of going on offense against the British. The plan was to land 15,000 French soldiers with plenty of supplies in Ireland, to coincide with an Irish insurrection, and drive the British out of Ireland. However, by now the French navy had basically spent the last three years of the war basically sitting in port, and was in a terrible state. An attempt was made in December 1776 but it was a complete fiasco.

In 1798, Wolfe Tone persuaded the French to land a small invasion force in Ireland to ignite an uprising against British rule.

Although a storm delayed the French landing, his colleagues in Ireland launched the armed rebellion anyway. By the time Wolfe Tone arrived with his French forces, the rebellion in Ireland which had quickly descended into sectarian violence had already been suppressed by the British government and Orange Order. Wolfe Tone was captured and convicted of treason, although he cuts his own throat to cheat the gallows. Instead of an independent Ireland, Pitt established the full union between Ireland and Britain; the Act of Union (1800). The result pleases no one. Pitt had pledged Catholic emancipation in order to win the vote in the Dublin parliament, but then could not deliver it after passionate opposition from King George III. Meanwhile, Ireland’s Protestant political classes were now small fry in the larger British parliament in London. Another consequence was that many estates in Ireland fell into the neglect and decay associated with absentee landlords. Determination to break the Union surfaced almost immediately in the uprising of Robert Emmet in 1803. Although the rebellion itself was a fiasco, Emmet became a nationalist martyr after his epic speech from the dock.