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Chapter 14. The French Revolution

In This Chapter

• Those troublesome colonies in America

Louis XVI and his no-win situation

Tennis courts, a minimum security prison, and thousands of angry women

Seriously—the Committee of Public Safety?

• The Madness is finally stopped

Between 1776 and 1815, Europe experienced a political revolution that can be traced directly to the ideas of the philosophes. The philosophes didn’t start the revolution in politics, and they certainly didn’t start the fighting, but their ideas were the rallying cry of those who did revolt.

The philosophes’ calls for human rights, also called liberty or freedom, inspired men in the British colonies of North America and in France to take up arms against their oppressors. Ideas such as popular sovereignty made people believe that political power should rest in their hands, not in the hands of the oppressive monarchs. The revolutionaries also demanded equality—not economic or gender equality, just equal protection under the law. The American colonists demanded to be treated as Englishmen and not as third-class citizens. The people of France demanded the old social order be done away with so that everyone was equal under the law.

These ideas may not seem radical in the twenty-first century, but they were indeed revolutionary concepts for eighteenth-century Europe. Those liberals, or men who advocated change in favor of human rights and equality under the law, faced stiff challenges from the conservatives, or men who desired to maintain the status quo. Ultimately, the liberals won out in the colonies and in France—but at a tremendous price.

Trouble for the Brits

The colonies in North America had always been a good investment for the British. They were, for the most part, pretty low-maintenance. The colonies were selfsufficient, they made their own laws, and they didn’t require too much attention from the British government. As such, the colonists felt a sense of separation from the British.

There were no serfs or nobles in the colonies. No oppressive government forced a state church on the colonists. Although technically the colonists were British, over time many came to think of themselves as American. When Britain went to war against the hated French in the French and Indian War, as the Seven Years’ War was called in North America, the British flooded the colonies with soldiers.

After successfully pounding the French in 1763, the British decided to leave their soldiers in the colonies to defend against anybody else who tried to trespass. The war basically doubled the British national debt, and now, faced with the possibility of leaving the soldiers in America long-term, the British government had no choice but to raise the colonists’ taxes. The colonists paid some of the lowest taxes in the world, just a fraction of the taxes that the English paid. Nevertheless, they didn’t appreciate it.

The Colonies Get Mad

The new British taxes came in the form of the Stamp Act, a new tax on all sorts of printed material including legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, even playing cards. The Stamp Act struck a nerve with the colonists. Protests and riots broke out and Parliament eventually gave in and repealed the tax. The colonists, who the British government believed were being terribly unreasonable, maintained that Parliament had no authority to change laws and levy taxes. They began to see the British government as a potential threat to their comfortable way of life.

Things hit the fan again in 1773, when the British government went to the aid of the East India Company, a trading company that shipped tea, and effectively cut colonial merchants out of the picture, helping to boost the business of a British company rather than contributing to the economic well-being of the colonists.

Would You Believe?

The Stamp Act required that small stamps be affixed to paper documents to show that taxes had been paid on items. The English had been paying stamp taxes for many years when Parliament decided to levy the tax in the colonies.

The colonists were furious, so a group of men dressed as Native Americans and threw themselves a tea party. Actually, they sneaked into Boston Harbor and dumped massive amounts of the company’s tea overboard. Such rebellious and lawless behavior left the British government with no choice but to tighten its grip on the rowdy colonists. Parliament passed the Coercive Acts, limiting colonial political freedom and strengthening royal power in the colonies.

The assemblies or lawmaking bodies from several colonies officially denounced the actions. A continental congress, a meeting of representatives from the various colonies, met in 1774 and decided they would not give in to the oppressive measures of the British government. Back in England, Parliament met and decided it wouldn’t budge either. As tensions between the two sides mounted, fighting broke out in 1775.

The Colonies Declare Independence

Throughout 1775 and 1776, many of the best and most influential colonial politicians worked to sway public opinion against the British government, even arguing in favor of independence from Britain. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress signed the Declaration of Independence, a document that listed the atrocities of King George III (1738-1820) and claimed the colonies were no longer subject to British rule. The colonists had officially drawn their line in the sand.

The British government could not allow colonies in which it had so much time and money invested to break away from the empire, so it responded with force. The fighting escalated between the professional British armies dressed in fancy red coats and the rag-tag militia of the colonists, many of them farmers or craftsmen. The British soldiers were aided by some colonists, called Loyalists, who remained loyal to the crown. All things being equal, the British would have and should have crushed the colonial armies. However, the colonists had allies across the Atlantic who were more than happy to undermine the British.

The Colonies Get Help from France

The French didn’t want to openly declare war on the Brits, but King Louis XVI (1754-1793) did want to avenge the humiliating defeat of the Seven Years’ War. Before the French officially threw their weight behind the rebellious colonists, the French government allowed the politician and playwright Beumarchais (1732-1799) to create a fake company called Roderigue Hortalez et Cie, through which the French and Spanish governments funneled aid to the American independence movement. By 1777, French troops were headed to America, and by 1778 approximately 15,000 French troops were added to the colonial forces.

With the entrance of French troops in the war against the British, the scales tipped in favor of the Americans. French and colonial forces actually numbered more than British forces, not including the Hessian mercenaries employed by the British. The Americans got a huge boost when France granted the former colonies, now calling themselves states, favored nation status in 1778. The French followed that treaty with another that created an alliance for the purpose of maintaining the independence of the United States. Britain soon found itself at odds not only with France but also with the Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Russians.

The British couldn’t afford such entanglements, so they granted independence to the rebellious Americans in 1783 at the Treaty of Paris. Were it not for the efforts of the French—including the sacrifice of more than 2,000 soldiers—the colonies’ rebellion may very well have been squashed.

The French Get an Idea

Many in Europe watched with great anticipation as the events across the Atlantic unfolded. When the dust settled and the Americans stood victorious, the significance was not lost on Europe. An oppressed people championing liberty and equality had taken up arms against the government and had made their own destiny. If it could happen in America, it could happen in Europe.

Would You Believe?

Many of the ideologies of the founding fathers of the United States derived directly from Enlightenment thinkers. Locke's belief in natural rights, or the right to life, liberty, and property, was of monumental importance in the drafting of the American system of government.

Many of the French who served, including the heroic Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), had gone just to fight the British—and then found themselves fighting for ideals like liberty and democracy. They returned to France fired up by what they experienced in America. French thinkers examined the events and the documents of the revolution, documents like the U.S. Constitution. The revolution in America didn’t cause the revolution in France, but it definitely influenced French revolutionaries.

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