And other important commentary

New Ways of Thinking

The late Eighteenth century was a time of desperation in France. New ways of thinking, which have become known as "The Enlightenment”, were filling minds throughout Europe. Meanwhile, people in France were dying of disease and starvation. The French Revolution has become one of the most publicized and documented events in the history of the world. It has become this way not because of a massive death toll or new technology, but rather because it is a dreadful story that sparked a chain reaction, which has inevitably, changed the world forever. After the French Revolution, people everywhere were seeing the importance in the Enlightenment’s new ideas. The guillotine played an important role in the French Revolution, and ultimately, the progression of the world into brilliant, new ways of living. Not without a few thousand sloppy and careless executions, however. The guillotine is a symbol of the French Revolution because of the gruesome scenes associated with it and that period of time. The guillotine was used as the official means of execution during the Revolution, and some say there were over 40,000 that died by the device.

The French Revolution took place all throughout France. It took place in the streets where most members of the Roman Catholic Church were executed, and in the homes where people were dying to disease and starvation. There were several factors that led to the French Revolution: a poor economic situation and unmanageable national debt, high unemployment and food prices, and high food scarcity in the time directly before the Revolution. The national debt and economic struggle in France was caused by an overly taxing economy due to a heavily spending Louis XVI and the multiple wars during the Eighteenth century. High unemployment rates caused more money to be spent on food rather than parts of the economy that were in need. This inevitably led to the food scarcity that was seen directly before the Revolution took place.

The Revolution did not start on any specific day or evening, but there is one significant date that has been labeled as the turning point for French occupation. On 11 July 1789, King Louis and his family acting under some conservative nobles banished Necker, a reformist minister, and restructured the ministry in France. Civilians in Paris presumed this to be the early stages of an attempt to form a royal coup, so they “moved into open rebellion” (Wikipedia). Three days later, insurgents took over the Bastille prison and releasing only seven prisoners. The “storming of the Bastille” as it has become known signified the angst of the people toward the Ancien Regime. This event was something people stood behind, and brought many reformists together to take action. The struggle in France escalated, and on 20 March 1792 the guillotine became France’s official means of execution.

The people recommended the guillotine because it was perceived as humane at the time. Before the guillotine, members of the nobility were beheaded and commoners were hanged. The Ancien Regime also had even more severe methods of execution such as the wheel, burning at the stake, or a chair that comes to a point at the top. Sometimes decapitations took several attempts, whereas the guillotine was very efficient. Also, the people saw having one means of execution an expression of equality amongst the nobility.

With a new device so efficiently cleaning out the monarchy in France, foreign monarchist powers feared invasion and pro-monarchy parties within France got together to stir the nation into a flurry of paranoia and dread. This period of time (June 1793 to July 1794) has become known as “The Reign of Terror”, or “the Terror” for short. Thousands died by the guillotine including many nobles. “Former King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793” (Wikipedia). Suspicion of “crimes against liberty” was sufficient enough to send nobility, intellectuals, commoners, politicians, serfs, and any others to death by guillotine. Experts believe the death toll ranges between 15,000 and 40,000. However, the public of France was not completely blood lusted and eventually grew tired of the public executions. Originally, people would flock to witness the event and vendors would sell merchandise. Like most things, however, the public grew weary and the crowds had heavily dissipated after the Terror.

After the Terror, a new constitution was signed which installed the Directory, a parliament consisting of 500 representatives. Executive power would go to five “directors”, installed by the senators. However, due to much opposition from royalists, the army in France was gaining power along with Napoleon Bonaparte. This new leader was loved by the majority of France for stabilizing the economy, and on 9 November 1799 he staged the coup of 18 Brumaire “which installed the Consulate; this effectively led to his dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as emperor” (Wikipedia). Napoleon remained the leader of France until after WWI.

The French Revolution was a turning point in Western civilization – it symbolized the transgression of equality into the French government and economy. The guillotine may be responsible for the Terror becoming a milestone during the Revolution. Because of the French Revolution, France underwent a series of government reforms; most were forward steps to the eventual end of monarchist rule in France.

Works Cited

  • Doyle, William. Oxford history of the French Revolution, 2nd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution, 1789-1799, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
  • "French Revolution." Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 3 Dec. 2006, 22.59 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation. 4 Dec. 2006.
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