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The National Assembly Takes Over

The storming of the Bastille proved crucial to the survival of the National Assembly. Had the popular uprising not occurred, Louis’ troops would have forced the National Assembly to disband. Instead, the National Assembly continued to meet. In August it produced a timeless document and over the next two years enacted changes that seemed destined to put France on course for becoming the liberal state desired by so many prior to the revolution. When the rest of Europe realized what had happened in France, some nations joined forces and tried to undo what had been done. As if the domestic turmoil weren’t enough for the French people, they faced the threat of foreign invasions bent on restoring the monarchy.

Declaration of the Rights of Man

In August 1789, the National Assembly produced The Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document that embraced Enlightenment ideals like liberty, equality, freedom from oppression, freedom of the press, and the right to property. The document even used Enlightenment phrases like “the general will.” The Declaration also emphasized popular sovereignty, another Enlightenment ideal.

Much like the documents of the American Revolution, the document declared, “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.” The document clearly identified the ideals for which the revolutionaries were working. However, the Declaration proved much easier to complete than any written plan for the government. As profound as the document was, it left out one major group of French—the women.

What About the Women?

Women received no equality. This exclusion prompted writers like Olympe de Gouges (1748-1793) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) over the next few years to call for equality for women. De Gouges’ Declaration of the Rights of Woman in 1791 called for men to end the oppression of women. Wollstonecraft, an Englishwoman, wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man in 1790 and A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. Wollstonecraft wrote of the intellectual potential of women and of the potential contributions of women to economics and politics. Both writers were convinced that women could be a powerful force in the world. After all, women had played a major role in the early days of the revolution.

In October 1789, thousands of hungry, angry women of Paris, fed up with high prices and bread shortages, marched 12 miles to Versailles to express their frustrations to the National Assembly and the king. Upon arriving at Versailles, the mob stormed the palace, killed guards, and demanded that the king and his queen, Marie Antoinette (1755-1793), return with them to live in Paris. Most commoners, forced to live on practically nothing, hated Marie Antoinette, who was famous for her extravagance. The next day, the mob escorted the royal family back to Paris where they were to remain. Likewise, the National Assembly left Versailles and returned to Paris.

Continental Quotes

“Dear God, guide and protect us. We are too young to reign."

—Marie Antoinette

National Assembly Makes Some Changes

The National Assembly wanted to create a constitutional monarchy, or a monarchy limited by written laws, and forced Louis XVI to accept the new government in 1790. The National Assembly also did away with the legal order of nobility. The National Assembly created uniform districts throughout France of roughly equal size and introduced a standard system of weights and measures for all of the districts.

The Assembly extended tolerance to Protestants and Jews and, in a shocking move, nationalized the Church, confiscating all Church property and closing monasteries.

It then issued a paper currency, called assignats, backed, in theory, by the property taken from the Church. Eventually, France sold the Church’s property to help fund the government.

Would You Believe?

In 1791, a lawyer named Robespierre observed all that had occurred thus far and declared the revolution over. He was wrong.

In another controversial move, the Assembly abolished guilds and workers groups. The Assembly didn’t forget about women but they didn’t do anything drastic, either. It extended some property and divorce rights to women, but not voting rights. Though well intentioned, many of the moves of the Assembly divided France. In particular, the moves against the Church and against workers divided the elite and the working classes.

Europe's Response to Revolution

The conservative monarchs of Europe were horrified that liberalism had practically removed the French monarch from the throne. Although Louis XVI remained head of state, his power was subject to the constitution and the National Assembly. Fearing that such revolutionary ideas might spread across the continent, and after learning that an attempted escape by Louis XVI had been thwarted, the leaders of Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz.

Basically, the declaration threatened foreign intervention in French affairs. The declaration was supposed to intimidate the French and slow the revolution in France. It had no such effect. The newly elected Assembly in 1792 thumbed its nose at the monarchs and declared war on the Habsburg ruler Francis II. Prussia joined Austria in the First Coalition. By 1793, France had also declared war on Britain, Holland, and Spain. Miraculously, the French outlasted the First Coalition, thanks in part to the rigid controls of yet another new government in France. France eventually amassed an army of approximately 800,000 men and gained control of all French land. The First Coalition had failed.

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