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THE FRENCH REVOLUTIONIPre-Revolutionary FranceIIRevolutionary FranceIIINapoleonic Europe IVThe Bourbon Restoration and the French Revolution’s Influence in the 19thCenturyIPre-Revolutionary FranceThe French Revolution of 1789 began a long cycle in European and world history in which the power of despotic governments and classes based in old forms of land ownership (feudalism and slavery) gave way to new forms of government based on some semblance of popular sovereignty and new class relations based on the rising importance of the capitalistinvolved in manufacturing and commerce. The history of the French Revolution begins in France, of course, but it soon becomes a continental phenomenon through the wars of Napoleon Bonaparte. The influence of the French Revolution also played a pivotal role in the Latin American wars of independence in the early 1800s.In 1789 France was still a monarchy. The king (Louis XVI) held absolute power. The absolute power of the French monarchy had been ‘checked’ in 1614 by the formation of the Estates General. The Estates General was a general assembly representing the three estates of French society. It was a kind of ‘parliament’ whose job was to ‘advise’ the king, although the king had no obligation to follow its advice. Moreover, the system of the three estates grossly misrepresented French society: each estate held equal representation in the Estates General, but the estates did not ‘equally’ represent the different sections of French society. The First Estate was composed of the Catholic clergy – about 2% of the total population. The Second Estate represented the nobility (the feudal landowners) – about 1% of the population. The Third Estate represented everyone else (97% of the population) including urban professionals, merchants, craftsmen, farmers and laborers.The French Revolution began as the representatives of the Third Estate sought more governing power for themselves, on the grounds that they represented the political will of the people. At first (in 1789) the representatives of the Third Estate in the Estates General simply wanted to reform the existing system of government (not to abolish the monarchy or the other estates). But once their proposed reforms were met with hostility by the others, the nature of the Third Estate’s demands escalated into more ‘radical’ positions.IIRevolutionary FranceAt the meeting of the Estates General in 1789, after their demands for reforms had been refuted, the leaders of the Third Estate proclaimed the formation of a new government in which they were the main governing body – without yet abolishing the monarchy or the 1
other estates, but simply reducing their role in government. On July 17, 1789 the leaders of the Third Estate proclaimed a new National Assembly – a unitary governing body composed of the former representatives of all three estates in more accurate proportion to their real social representation. The founders of the National Assembly envisioned France as a