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History of the French Republic (We)

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Liberty Guiding the People


This is the history of the République Française - a nation born in blood and formed with the hope of a better, freer future for the people of France. Although it would be short-lived, the Republic had a profound impact on the advancement of human civilization, sparking the countless fires of democratic revolution across Europe. The tyranny of King Louis XVI and his absolute monarchy ended with the foundation of the French Republic and a reign of the people by the people began. This new order held values that struck a cord with the non-nobility, a cord that quickly resonated.

Le Roi est mort! Vive la République!

Following the Battle of Versailles on 24 July 1789, King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and the young Dauphin Louis-Charles, were brought to Paris under guard to await their judgment by the people, an idea proposed by Deputy Georges Danton as a poetically just fate for the royal family. When they arrived, a public gathering of the National Constituent Assembly on the Champ de Mars was called by Danton to vote on the proclamation of the abolition of the monarchy that would remove the titles and powers of Louis XVI, and on a Déclaration de la République. Although the lower class was hesitant about forming a democracy, the idea of a republic resonated with the educated middle-class, as it was seen as a throwback to the days of Ancient Rome. The bill was unanimously signed. On 29 July, the King was given a trial, though it became little more than an interrogation where accusations were thrown at him and, regardless of his response, were accepted by the Parisian mob with a throng of cheers. A subsequent bill in the Assembly to sentence Louis to capital punishment passed by about 20 votes. It was decided; the King would die.

In order to show their civility, the Deputies of the National Constituent Assembly decided that a humane method for killing the King had to be devised. Their concern was that the purpose of capital punishment was to end life, not inflict pain, and so this new method had to be quick and painless. They formed a committee of physicians and politicians to create an implement for rapid execution, a group which included Antoine Louis, the Secretary to the Academy of Surgery and former physician of the King; Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a professor of anatomy at the faculty of medicine in Paris; Laquiante, an officer of the Strasbourg criminal court, and Tobias Schimdt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker. Without much deliberation, the committee chose to build an improved Scottish Maiden. Nearly a month later, they were finally able to build the prototype of their device: a falling blade slanted at a 45 degree angle and able to fall with enough force to sever a neck when blunt. The Guillotine, as it was dubbed by the committee, already had its first test subject.

On 11 September 1789, King Louis XVI of France, now simply citizen Louis Capet, was marched alongside his wife and brother to the Place Louis XV where the guillotine awaited its first victims. Composed with a dignified and calm air, he delivered a speech forgiving those who put him to death and wishing safety to his former people as he predicted a substantial response against France from its allies and enemies alike. Though he seemed prepared to issue another warning, general Antoine-Joseph Santerre cut him off by ordering the drum roll to begin. As Louis solemnly walked to his death, the monument to his grandfather King Louis XV was violently torn down by the Gardes Françaises. In an eery silence, moments after the echo of the statue's fall had subsided, the guillotine fell, swiftly beheading the last French king.

A young but vibrant speaker, Maximilien Robespierre, broke the silence, "The Tyrant is dead. Long live the Republic." The mob responded to his call in an uproar. But there was something rotten in the state of France.

Nouvelles Réformes

In their revolutionary fervor, the representatives of the Republic wished to remove all traces of the Ancien Régime and the monarchy that they had abolished. Starting August 1, as propaganda in favor of the new regime, several mottoes were spread by the Assembly. Some of the most popular ones were "Union, Force, Vertu" and "Force, Égalité, Justice". But the favorite was "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, ou la mort." These propaganda pamphlets were spread throughout the French countryside, detailing the nobility of the Assembly's efforts and the benefit that it was providing the lower class. In Paris, speeches were given by legislative speakers nearly every day, both extolling the virtue of the Republic and garnering personal support for the people making the address. Through the rest of the year, Deputies such as Maximilien Robespierre and Jean Joseph Mounier gained enormous political support from the people in this way.

Meanwhile, le Marquis de La Fayette was named commander-in-chief of la Garde Nationale, the military force that maintained order in Paris and consisted of soldiers from the ranks of the (abolished) Gardes Françaises. L'Armée Revolutionnaire was founded late-August to replace the old armed forces of France. With thousands of zealous young men joining its ranks each day, in response to propaganda warning of foreign monarchies, its ranks had swollen to 220,000 men. Many officers of the old regime were aristocrats and so a great deal fled during the early stages of the Revolution. However, those officers that remained were swiftly promoted, regardless of rumored affiliation or social class. This filled the higher-ranks with driven, young men of decent battle experience. The two largest units of the army, l'Armée du Nord and l'Armée du Rhin were commanded by the Comte de Rochambeau and Comte Nicholas Luckner, the Marshal of France, respectively.

On August 4, the National Constituent Assembly promulgated 17 decrees that abolished the remainder of feudalism in France, created a proportional tax system for all Frenchmen and ended the payment of tithes to the Roman Catholic clergy. This was only the beginning. Five days later, after a great deal of debate in the Assembly, which had consisted of all three Estates since 30 July, all Church property was confiscated and used to back a new French currency, the franc. Alexandre Angélique de Tayllerand, Archbishop of Reims and uncle of the famous statesman Charles de Tayllerand, was sent directly to Pope Pius VI as an ambassador to maintain relations. He was rejected on arrival by His Holiness, who completely disagreed with the Revolutionary's proposal and forced a shameful return to France before the end of the year.

The most heavily lauded reform of the French Republic was the 18 August Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (French: Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen) presented as a draft to the Assembly by the Marquis de la Fayette. The bill held a great deal of legal significance, embodying the egalitarianism of the U.S. Constitution and the social contract of Rousseau. The remaining privileges of the aristocracy were abolished, leaving only their wealth - which was often taken by the Assembly - and their titles, and offices of state were made assignable by talent, rather than breeding, alone. This solidified several concepts, including natural rights and liberty, and proclaimed a government by the people for the people which was justified by popular sovereignty instead of royal divine rights. Furthermore, like the American Constitution, it established freedom of speech and religion as well as the government's role as protector of people's liberties. In essence, it was a declaration that the rights of all members of society were universal rather than exclusive.

In other matters, the provinces of the Ancien Régime were replaced by 83 Départements that were roughly equal in civil population and that received equal representation in the new government being formed by the NCA. Drawing on the works of Montesquieu and the American Constitution, the Marquis de La Fayette, who was gradually becoming one of the most influential men in France, proposed a bicameral legislature as the new government. Its upper house would be the Convention, run by Senateurs (English: Senators) who could be indirectly elected by grands électeurs, including mayors, city councilors and members of the lower house in that Département. Its lower house would include les Députés and be known as la Communes. Deputies would be directly elected as representatives of a Canton, of which there were 255 - one for every 100,000 people in the Republic. Representative democracy seemed to be the intended system of government for France.

This parliamentary and administrative reform was implemented on December 14 with the passing of the 1789 Constitution of France. The new government was collectively known as l'Assemblée Législative. A President of the Republic was elected by les Députés to a four year term and given executive power of the government. Although the French Constitution established all of these principles, the Republic was nowhere near prepared to put them into effect. For the time being, the National Constituent Assembly remained in power so that it could deal with the growing threat of foreign enemies at its doorstep.

European Revolution

When news of the Battle of Versailles reached the other monarchs of Europe, all began to carefully watch the developments in the turbulent country of France. Charles IV of Spain and Frederick William II of Prussia were appalled at the treatment of the French King by Revolutionaries. This rapidly grew into terror when news of Louis' execution spread throughout the courts of the Western world. In spite of how disturbed most monarchs were by the radicalism of the French Republic, few desired another war at a time when the Russians under Catherine II were putting pressure on the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth and everyone wanted a slice of the pie. Still, the general affront to all sovereigns perpetuated by a people executing its king was too great for neutrality. Therefore, Spain began the reactionary response by mobilizing 20,000 men to the French border. However, anti-royalist fervor within the monarchies quickly started to threaten their positions.

Spanish Revolution

Charles IV of Spain

Charles IV, King of Spain

It is difficult to judge where it started, given that many of the rebellions were unrelated to each other, but the first large revolt of the people occurred on November 24 at Aranjuez just 48 km south of Madrid. Ostensibly they were revolting in opposition to the replacement of the Count of Floridablanca with Manuel de Godoy, the King's favorite and the Queen's lover, of which everyone including Charles himself were aware. The primary motivation for the revolt was their recognition of the largely successful French Revolution. The mob gathered a force of 18,000 people on its way to the capital, where a further 20,000 residents and several hundred royal guards joined the anti-royalists. From there they marched on El Escorial where King Charles IV had received word of their presence mere hours before they arrived at his palace.

In an attempt to quell the mob, Charles went out onto a balcony to plead for their disbandment. They simply demanded the head of Godoy. Unwilling to kill his favorite, and now plagued with the shrieks of his fearful wife, he ordered his guards to defend the palace as well as they could as he retired to the basilica to pray. Within the day, the Spanish king was in the custody of the mob and Godoy was in prison awaiting his execution at the chopping block. Spanish noblemen in the court who had joined the rebellion went to work establishing their Republic in the image of the French one. Unlike France, which had already existing democratic sentiments that caused disagreement amongst its revolutionaries and was charting new governmental waters, la Republica Española assembled itself in time to declare the Spanish Constitution on Christmas Day, a symbolic action which garnered some support from the Catholic Spanish for the regime change.

The Spanish Republic, while extolling the equality and liberty values of the French Republic, did not go as far in its reforms. The Catholic Church retained all of its property and ecclesiastical power and the former king was merely sent into exile. Among its other reforms, all crown possessions were granted directly to the Republic, including palaces, funds and the Viceroyal colonies in the New World which were renamed las Provincias Americanas de España (English: the American Provinces of Spain). Although only 8 provinces were established there, compared to the 49 in Spain itself, they had equal voting rights in terms of electing the head of the Spanish Republic and executive leader, the Secretario de Estado.

German Revolutions

The Holy Roman Empire experienced numerous democratic reforms during the 1790's, ultimately crippling the ancient empire. On 8 December 1789 Dresden became the first German capital to fall into rebellion. The Elector of Saxony and his family were killed when rioters burned their home whilst the rest of the city ruined itself through fires and fights on the street. In January and February of the next year, Munich, Stuttgart, Hanover and nearly a dozen other German capital cities fell to internal rebellions of the people. Though the Republics of Wurtemberg and Bavaria were safely established by April, nearly all of the other states experienced an extended period of anarchy for most of 1790.

Emperor Joseph II

The unpopular Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor and King in Germany

The climax of the revolution in the Holy Roman Empire came in March of 1790 when the Emperor Joseph II announced his disregard for the French Republic, which he called "a hopeful, young nation, not unlike an ignorant child." Joseph was renowned for his administrative, legal and religious reforms for the people, his tolerance towards all religions and races and particularly his habit of almost deliberately opposing rival states. The execution of his sister in the Revolution did not help his opinion either. Furthermore, his policies of reform appeared to be attempts to centralize the Holy Roman Empire on Vienna and often required the dissolution of many old institutions and traditions. Consequently, in early April, the Belgians revolted against his rule in the Austrian Netherlands. Though he wished to send troops to squash the rebels, who now numbered almost 60,000, it was now impossible to send armies across the rebellion scarred lands of Germany.

Ultimately, the people of Vienna, who were more or less discontent with Joseph's policies, took the Belgian rebellion as their cue to revolt as well. On 10 May a mob of 10,000 or so people broke into Hofburg Palace and killed the already sickly Emperor.

With the fall of most monarchies and principalities in Germany, the only remaining government of the Holy Roman Empire was the Reichstag in Regensburg. Hence, Arch-chancellor Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal, the Archbishop and Elector of Mainz, called the remaining electors and other members of the German estates of the realm together in late May to decide on a course of action. Ultimately, the Reichstag elected Joseph's brother Leopold II to be his successor in the hopes of reestablishing the authority of the Holy Roman Emperor.

However, Leopold was unable to quell the rebellions within his realm and those of his electors. His attempt to send troops to Hungary and Bohemia, who were openly opposing his rule, incited them to send emissaries to France, asking for support. Their call for help was accepted and on 25 May, the Marquis de La Fayette was commanding the 120,000 man Armée du Nord into Austria.

Scandinavian Coup

Sweden was largely free of the widespread protesting that went on in Germany, staying that way even into the War of the Great Coalition. Its King Gustav III was well acquainted with the ways of popular assemblies and was the only monarch of his time that understood the scope of the French Revolution. In the reforms he had been passing of late, to reinforce his monarchical authority no less, he had made sure to curtail the powers and privileges of the nobility, thus keeping the lower estates content. However, at a masked ball on 16 March 1792, an assassination attempt was made on his life by the disgruntled Anckarström and some co-conspirators. Although they did not kill him immediately, the king did die of his wounds 13 days later and was succeeded by King Gustav IV Adolf. The ineptness of his successor eventually plays a role in a wider history.

Other Revolutions

In 1789 a conspiracy to gain independence was growing in Portuguese Brazil. In spite of infighting amongst conspirators, between monarchists and republicans as well as abolitionists and slavers, the movement successfully ousted the Portuguese from Rio de Janeiro and Salvador. A reaction from Queen Maria I was prevented by minor revolts in Lisbon and other Portuguese cities. Bureaucrats of a Federal Republic of Brazil under a President Tiradentes (aka Joaquim José da Silva Xavier) signed their own declaration of independence on 15 November 1789. The new nation sent emissaries to the Spanish in Mexico and Madrid in January 1790 to establish diplomatic relations with their Iberian republican brethren. This resulted in Tiradentes signing the Treaty of Aranjuez as an observer, guaranteeing peace between France, Brazil and Spain.

The city of Perugia revolted in May of 1791 against the rule of the Papal States, which let the rebellion slide in order to avoid inciting the French as the Holy Roman Empire had done. The city therefore easily declared itself the Tiberina Republic, ruling itself through an elected Consul and a minor Senate of city officials. Revolutionary sentiment was also stirring in other Italian cities, namely Rome, Naples and Florence, against their respective autocratic regimes. For the time being, these were nothing but peaceful protests and intellectual movements.

Guerre de la Grande Coalition

Main Article: War of the Grand Coalition

Before the French had declared war against the Holy Roman Empire, Camille Desmoulins had been sent to the United Kingdom to form a treaty of peace, in respect of its parliamentary system. King George III and William Pitt the Younger had no desire to get involved with the turmoil on continental Europe and petitioned to Parliament to agree to a treaty. Hence, William and Desmoulins signed the Treaty of Truro in agreement to stay out of each other's hair as it were. This also granted the British the right to intervene in Hanover to protect their king's dynastic homeland from the rebels who threatened members of the royal family.

With the threat of the British removed by March 1790, France focused on consolidating relations with some of the emerging republics. The Treaty of Aranjuez established a mutual defense pact between the French and Spanish republics while the Treaty of Munich ensured peace for France with the Republic of Bavaria, which rescinded its claims to the rest of the Bavarian Circle, a territory that included Regensburg, in the hopes of remaining neutral so as to regain its bearings.

Revolt in the Vendée

Through all of this political confusion, a rebellion in the French Département of Vendée, against the rejection of the Catholic Church by the government, was ignored and had garnered a counterrevolutionary force of nearly 80,000 men over the course of March. It wasn't until April 1790 that the National Constituent Assembly finally voted to send General Adam de Custine with a force of 45,000 troops to solve the matter. Unfortunately, the Vendeans were far more zealous than expected, and the Battle of Fontenay-le-Comte ended as a massacre of nearly a hundred thousand people on all sides, with the majority of deaths on the royalist side.

Emperor Leopold II

Emperor Leopold II, in robes of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which shows his support for the dethroned King of Spain

The surviving Vendeans were pushed to the coast where their tired forces experienced a far more thorough massacre. Briefly, Custine lost control of part of his forces as they began pillaging the region. Once he reestablished communication, the pillagers were halted and a formal meeting with the Vendean nobility took place. The Treaty of La Jaunaie, in July, well into the War of the Great Coalition, concluded the revolt in the Vendée.

War in Italy

When France declared war against the Holy Roman Empire on 25 May, Spain held up its deal and joined them in short order. However, Frederick William II of Prussia, who had squashed the revolutions in Berlin and Potsdam at great cost of lives, declared his allegiance to Leopold II and began mobilizing troops on the border with France. Their alliance was joined by the Grand Duchy of Tuscany under Leopold's brother, the Kingdom of Sardinia and finally the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in late April. The Russian Empire, still in the midst of conquering Poland, offered the French its support in their war against the Germans and Italians. On the grounds of the heavy autocracy of the Russian government, France declined its offer.

Initially, the Marquis de La Fayette led 120,000 troops from l'Armée du Nord directly into the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont. The Marquis met light resistance, only 38,000 troops at most, and managed to eliminate virtually all of Sardinia's continental armies by late June 1790. While l'Armée des Alpes moved in to maintain the French presence, La Fayette continued south into the neutral Duchies of Parma and Modena, both of which promptly offered their allegiance to France at his "request." From there he began an invasion of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in August. By October, Grand Duke Ferdinand III had surrendered to France, solidifying French control of Northern Italy for the time being.

War in Prussia

Meanwhile, the Spanish were given passage through France to assist the 80,000 troops of l'Armée du Rhin led by General Charles-François Dumouriez in his invasion of Prussia. Their combined force of 160,000 met Frederick William II's on 10 June at the Battle of Bingen Forest. The Prussian army, which had been weakened and demoralized by its losses, and massacres, against German revolutionaries, was no match for the combined Franco-Spanish army. Frederick William's retreat only led to further losses, at such battles as Buckeburg (which wiped out the princely family there), until he prepared himself at Hamburg for a final stand against the French.

French Revolutionaries in Berlin

Ronsin's armies parading through Berlin

The Battle of Hamburg came at last on August 22, 1790. It was a massacre of the Prussian armies. Their only consolation was that Dumouriez made several careless errors in the battle that ultimately resulted in his death and replacement by the more radical Charles-Philippe Ronsin. As the King of Prussia had fled Hamburg when news reached him of his armies defeat, Ronsin opted to press on and take the relatively undefended capital, Berlin. He arrived to a city without a king on September 7.

After a parade through Berlin's streets, Ronsin delivered a rousing speech in favor of republicanism, to the Berliners, from the Brandenburg Gate. In it he extolled the virtues of a democratic government and the successes of the French Republic, urging them to work towards the same goal. Politically speaking, his speech meant nothing for the Kingdom of Prussia. However, it successfully instilled the radical idea of democracy in the hearts and minds of the people of Berlin.

War in Austria

The last stage of the war required the defeat of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II and his Austrian armies. News had just reached the emperor that Belgium had been liberated by l'Armée de l'Est and negotiations were underway to merge it into the French Republic. This angered the British, who were unable to stop France due to the conditions of the treaty they had signed, and scared the United Provinces of the Netherlands who declared war against France in July 1790, just as Prussia was being crushed to the east. They would not be outright defeated by France but the fall of the rest of Europe would ultimately force them into joining the surrender.

L'Armée du Rhin further east was moving south to take one of Austria's flanks while l'Armée du Nord invaded through the west. The Marquis de La Fayette commanding the latter army had just finished up in the Venice, signing the Treaty of Trient on September 18, after much deliberation, that swore the allegiance of the Most Serene Republic to France and replaced Doge Ludovico Manin with a consensus rule by the Council of Ten.

Though absolutely overwhelmed on all sides of his empire by French, Spanish, Hungarian and Bohemian forces, Leopold II managed to keep his enemies in check for much of 1791. On July 1, 1791 he died suddenly while campaigning in Austerlitz. In the north he had managed to win many victories and to kill several French commanders. However, their most recent one, Napoleon Bonaparte, was proving impossible to defeat. It seems the stress of his losses had done in the old emperor.

Under laws passed by the Reichstag in late 1790, the death of Emperor Leopold II meant that his eldest son immediately succeeded him to the throne. The new Emperor Francis II gathered what little forces he had left to push Napoleon back and retake Prussia for Frederick William II, now in exile in Vienna. Once again, Napoleon won victory after victory against the Austrians. In the south, the Marquis de La Fayette was in the process of fighting the Sicilians, who had put up a staunch resistance after reinforcing themselves with Swiss mercenaries.

Republic of France 1792

République Française prior to the Congress of Paris

Several times in 1791 and 1792, Francis sued for peace with the French and Spanish but Napoleon, knowing the great advantage his and the Marquis' forces had, made the suggestion to fight until the end and settle for nothing less than absolute victory. Though this may have been the more difficult option, it paid off in the end. In March 1792, the Marquis gained passage through the Papal States to directly invade the Two Sicilies and in June, Napoleon's forces had captured Vienna, taking King Frederick William captive. Francis was left with only Hungary, a kingdom teeming with rebellious armies.

On 25 November 1792, Napoleon and the Marquis forced their remaining enemies into unconditional surrender, exactly as they did earlier with the Dutch and the Sardinians. The French Republic had put the Constitution of 1789 into action by this point and had elected the radical Maximilien Robespierre as its head of state. President Robespierre gave the order for Napoleon and La Fayette to bring the various monarchs of Europe to Paris by Spring in order to "make the unrealized liberty of the European peoples an undeniable reality."

Congress of Paris

On 25 March 1793, exactly four months after the unconditional surrender of the monarchist forces of Europe, President Robespierre officially declared the start of the General Congress of Peace in Paris. It was perhaps one of the most significant political events in Europe's history as representatives from virtually every Western nation attended, even those in America. Included among the more than 2000 plenipotentiaries were:

  • President Robespierre of France
  • Marquis de La Fayette
  • Lord William Grenville, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Great Britain
  • King Frederick William II of Prussia
  • Francis II, Holy Roman Emperor
  • Arch-chancellor Friedrich Karl Joseph von Erthal of Mainz
  • Thomas Jefferson, United States Secretary of State
  • Francisco de Paula Freire de Andrade, Secretary of Foreign Affairs in Brazil
  • Secretario de Estado José Moñino of Spain
  • Pope Pius VI
  • Grand Duke Ferdinand III of Tuscany

The attending monarchs had been brought under the mercy of France and, like Louis before them, were basically awaiting their own executions or exile. This they received one at a time. The juridical stage of the conference ended on June 10 with the execution of Frederick William on the Brandenburg Gate. Only Pope Pius VI and the episcopal heads of state had their lives spared. The United States, represented by Jefferson, pledged its support of the French Republic, praising its political moderation, and in favor of the anti-royalist war of the last year.

Trade agreements were signed by France, Spain, the United States, Bavaria, the Netherlands, and the Italian republics in recognition of their mutual support in the reorganization of Europe.

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