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Revolutions Unit: Part I

The Atlantic Revolutions From the American Revolution to The French and Napoleon

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What is the Divine Right of Kings?


  • The Atlantic basin became a world of intellectual and cultural exchange as well as one of commercial and biological intercourse.

  • Atlantic Revolutions were greatly impacted by Enlightenment ideas.

  • At the heart of these ideas was the notion that human political and social arrangements could be engineered and improved by human action.

  • The Divine Right of Kings, aristocratic privilege, state control of trade, and the authority of the church went under attack. New ideas of liberty and equality, free trade, religious tolerance, republicanism, & human rationality were at the heart of these revolutions.

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The American Revolution:

  • Launched by the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

  • British colonists defeated the British in 1781 and generated a federal constitution in 1787.

  • It joined 13 formerly separate colonies into a new nation. It was the FIRST of the Atlantic revolutions.

Was it a revolution?

  • It can be considered a conservative movement.

  • For much of the 17th and 18th centuries the British colonies in North America enjoyed a degree of local autonomy as the British government was embroiled in its own internal conflicts.

  • Local elected assemblies in N. America dominated by the wealthy property-owning settlers achieved close to self-government.

  • Colonists came to regard such autonomy as a birthright and part of their English heritage.

  • Initially, being a colony seemed beneficial to the colonists. The British government would protect them, offer them markets, and confirm their identity as “Englishmen” (cue the School House Rock video “No More Kings”!)

  • Unlike Europe there were no Estates. There was no titled nobility and no single established church. So social life was somewhat more free than in Europe.

  • No legal distinctions differentiated clergy, aristocracy and commoners, as they did in France. All free people ,which of course excluded black slaves, enjoyed the same status before the law.

  • This offered more economic opportunity, fewer social differences and easier relationships among the classes than in Europe.

  • IMPORTANT: The American Revolution did not grow out of social tensions within the colonies, but from a sudden and unexpected effort by the British government to tighten its control over the colonies and to extract more revenue from them. macintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:imgres.jpeg

  • Financial problems from war with France drained its treasury and ran up its national debt, so Britain began to look at the American colonies to make good on their losses in the 1760s.

  • Like a strict imperial power, Britain began taxing the colonists.

  • Armed with the ideas of Enlightenment (popular sovereignty, natural rights, and consent of the governed) they went to war and the colonists prevailed by 1781. In many ways through the aid of the French.

  • What was revolutionary about the American experience was not so much the revolution itself, but the kind of society that had already emerged within the colonies. Independence from Britain was not accompanied by any wholesale social transformation. Rather the revolution accelerated the established democratic tendencies of the colonial societies. Political authority remained largely in the hands of existing elites who had led the revolution, although property requirements for voting were lowered and more white men were elected to state legislatures. macintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:quote-remember-the-ladies-and-be-more-generous-and-favorable-to-them-than-your-ancestors-do-not-put-abigail-adams-337067.jpg

  • No women or people of color made political gains.

  • Land was not seized from the privileged class. macintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:slavery.gif

  • Slavery was not abolished

  • Many of the aristocrats that led the revolution remained in power (i.e. GW, TJ etc).

  • America was the first national republic on the world-stage. It would become the most democratic country in the world through the 1800s.

  • It was less the direct product of the revolution and more the gradual working out in the preceding century.

  • It sparked other revolutions worldwide.

Point- Counterpoint

The American Revolution was REVOLUTIONARY

The American Revolution was a mere Conservative Movement

The French Revolution

What is Absolutism?

Characteristics of the Old Regime:


  • The peasants comprised of over four fifths of France’s 26 million people

    • The peasants lost half their income in taxes

      • They paid feudal dues to nobles, tithes to the church, and royal taxes to the king’s agent. In addition, they paid a land tax called the taille and performed forced labor called the corvee.

    • Grain shortages led to sharp increases in the price of bread

      • The rising cost of bread was a major cause of discontent


    • Louis XIV’s profligate spending left a massive public debt that consumed half the nation’s tax revenues.

    • The cost of fighting the Seven Years’ War and financing the American Revolution worsened the fiscal crisismacintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:louis_xiv_of_france.jpg


    • French nobles were exempt from paying taxes.

    • The nobles successfully resisted all attempts to reform the tax system.


    • Louis VIV: Built the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, the an extra extravagant palace. Called himself the “Sun God.” Located outside of Paris, physically and emotionally removed from the people.

    • Louis VX (reigned 1715-1744) was a weak and indecisive ruler

    • Louis XVI –reigned 1774-1792- and his Austrian wife Marie Antoinette were particularly unpopular and frivolous

    • The high court of Paris-the Parliament-assumed the right to approve and disapprove the king’s decrees, further eroding royal power.

The Estates General:

  • Calling the Estates General:

    • By the spring of 1789, the French government faced the imminent threat of bankruptcy

    • The king called a meeting of the Estates General.

    • The Three Estates:

      • First Estate: The Clergy

        • Catholic Church held about 20 percent of the land

        • The French clergy paid not taxes. Instated they gave the government a “free gift” of about 2 percent of their income. The most radical revolutionaries would say: We will strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest—French radicals say we have to destroy church and monarch.

      • Second Estate: the nobility

        • Nobles comprised 2 to 4 percent of the population

        • Nobles owned about 25 percent of the land

      • Third Estate: Everybody else

        • The third estate comprised 95 percent of the population

        • It included a diverse group of peasant farmers, urban workers, middle class shopkeepers, wealthy merchants, and successful lawyers.

        • They resented aristocratic privileges

  • Tennis Court Oath:

    • June 1789. Members of the first and second estates assumed that each estate would receive one vote. This system would enable them to impose their will on the third estate 

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes: "What is the Third Estate? [Excerpts] French clergyman and political theorist of the 18th century.

The Third Estate embraces then all that which belongs to the nation; and all that which is not the Third Estate, cannot be regarded as being of the nation.

What is the Third Estate?

It is the whole.
Led by Abbe Sieyes, the third estate rejected this method of voting and demanded that all three estates meet together.

    • When the king refused, the third estate declared itself the true National Assembly of France. Locked out of their official meeting place, the third estate met in a nearby indoor tennis court where they took an oath not to disband until they drafted a constitution.

    • The Tennis Court Oath marked the beginning of the French Revolution

      • The National Assembly…

        • Created a constitutional monarchy

        • Divided France into 83 departments governed by elected officials

        • Established the metric system of measurement

        • Abolished internal tariffs

        • Abolished guilds

      • The National Assembly did not…

        • Abolish private property

        • Give women the right to vote.

The National Assembly:

  • The Storming of the Bastille:

    • Determined to reassert royal authority, Louis XVI ordered a mercenary army of Swiss guards to march toward Paris and Versailles.

    • In Paris, angry mobs were already protesting the soaring price of bread. As tensions rose a mob stormed the Bastille, a royal fortress and prison. the mob freed a handful of prisoners and seized the Bastille’s supply of gunpowder and weapons.

    • The fall of the Bastille marked an important symbolic act against royal despotism. It also pushed Paris to the forefront of the ongoing revolution.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, August 1789:

  • The declaration proclaimed that all men were born and remain free and equal in rights. These natural rights included the rights to liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

  • The declaration provided for freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary arrest, freedom of speech, freedom of press, and the right to petition government.

  • Women: Women gained increased rights to inherit property and to divorce

    • Women did not gain the right to vote or hold political officemacintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:imgres.jpeg

    • In her book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft (pictured) argued that women are not naturally inferior to men. The appearance of inferiority is created by lack of education. You go girl!

  • Women March on Versailles: On October 5, 1789 thousands of women marched to Versailles demanding cheap bread and insisting that the royal family move to Paris.

    • The king quickly capitulated, and a few days later the National Assembly also moved to Paris.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy- August 1790

  • This act, passed by the National Assembly, did the following

    • Confiscated the lands owned by the RCC (Roman Catholic Church)

    • Decreed that bishops and priests would be elected by the people and paid by the state

    • Required the clergy to take an oath of loyalty to support the new government.

    • It is important to note that Pope Pius VI condemned the act and that over half of the clergy refused to take the oath of allegiance. Alienated Catholics proved to be persistent opponents of the French Rev. macintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:warn600span.jpg

The New Constitution of 1791:
The new French constitution that in 1791 established a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, with all executive power answerable to a legislative assembly. Under the new constitution, King Louis XVI could only temporarily veto legislation passed by the assembly. The constitution restricted voting in the assembly to the upper and middle classes of French society and abolished “nobility” as a legal order.

The Legislative Assembly:

  • The legislative body was highly divided.

  • The political terms right, center, and left are derived from the seating arrangement.

  • Conservatives who supported the king made up the right

  • Moderates were in the center

  • Radicals who distrusted the king and wanted the revolution to continue sat on the left. The Left was divided into two groups:

    • Jacobins—wanted to overthrow the monarchy and create a republic. Key Jacobin leaders included Jean Paul Marat and Maximillien Robespierre.

    • Girondists wanted to involve France in a war that would discredit the monarchy and extend France’s revolutionary ideal across Europe. Favored war!

France at War:

Vs. Austria and Prussia

  • Leopold II of Austria and Frederick William II of Prussia issued the Declaration of Pillnitz in 1791 declaring that the restoration of absolutism in France was of “common interest to all sovereigns of Europe”

  • The Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia in April 1792, thus beginning the war of the First Coalition.

  • The war began badly for the poorly equipped French armies. By the summer of 1792, Austrian and Prussian armies were advancing toward Paris.

  • Faced with defeat, recruits rushed to Paris. The French forces stopped the ASutro-Prussian army, saving the Revoultion.

  • Violence broke out in Paris. Convinced that royalists would betray the Revolution, mobs of sans-culottes executed over a thousand priests, bourgeoisie, and aristocrats. These September Massacres marked the beginning of the second French Revolution dominated by Radicals. Sans-culottes took control of the city government. They were radicals.

The National Convention 1792-1795: R A D I C A L

  • The Execution of the King

    • The National Convention (NC) was newly elected and abolished the monarchy and declared France to be a republic

    • The National Convention then had to decide the king’s fate. The Girondists favored imprisonment while the Jacobins…you guessed it.. .off with your head!

    • The

    • The NC passed a resolution condemning the king to death. It was passed by one vote.

    • Supported by the sans culottes, the Jacobins branded the Girondins as counterrevolutionaries and ousted them from the National Convention.

Reign of Terror

  • Faced with foreign invaders and the threat of domestic rebellion, the National Convention established the Committee of Public Safety (CPS) to defend France and safeguard the Revolution.

  • Led by Robespierre, the CPS exercised dictatorial power as it carried out the Reign of Terror.

  • He executed the queen, his chief rivals and thousands of enemies of the state.

  • He was a fanatic.

  • Fearing for their lives and longing for stability, the National Convention reasserted its authority by executing Robespierre.

  • Robespierre’s death ended the radical phase of the Revolution.

The Directory: 1795-1799

  • The Directory became the ruling body in 1795

  • It consisted of a two-house legislature and an executive body of five men known as the Directory—proved to be corrupt and unpopular. macintosh hd:private:var:folders:zj:k5lh33ys2b9977llmjj7fqkc0000gp:t:temporaryitems:images.jpeg

  • Public discontent and the Directory’s ineffective governing led to its downfall. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and seized power. He was a talented young general.

The First Consul:

  • NB took command of the new government. He held all the power and made all decisions.

  • He censored the press and suppressed all political opposition

  • Despite the loss of individual liberties, France enjoyed security, stability, and prosperity.

  • Napoleon’s popularity continued to rise as he restored order.

  • Napoleonic Code: his legal experts consolidated hundreds of local law codes into a uniform legal code that is still the basis of French law.

    • The new code guaranteed many achievements of the French Rev. including equality before the law, freedom of religions, and the abolition of privilege and the protection of property rights.

    • The code increased the authority of husbands within the family. Women and children were legally2 dependent on the husband or father. Women could not buy or sell property without the consent of their husband.

  • The Concordat of 1801: Napoleon understood the importance of ending the strained relationship between the French government and the RCC.

    • Granted the RCC special status as the religion of the majority of Frenchmen. The pope regained the right to confirm church dignitaries, appointed by the French governed, depose French bishops, and reopen religious seminaries.

    • In return, the RCC recognized the French government and accepted the loss of Church property confiscated during the revolution.

  • Supported by a grateful nation, Napoleon would eventually declare himself emperor on 12/2/1804.

Napoleon’s Empire

  • Between 1805 and 1807, Napoleon defeated Austria, Prussia, and Russia in a series of brilliant military victories.

  • NB’s victories made him a military genius.

  • By 1808 French rule extended from the North Sea to Spain and included most of Italy.

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The Reorganization of Germany:

  • Napoleon’s victories enabled him to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire. HE consolidated previously independent German states into a French dominated Confederation of the Rhine (named for the Rhine River)

  • Posing as a champion of the Revolution, NB abolished feudalism and granted peasants freedom from manorial duties.

  • It is important to note that NB sparked a wave of German nationalism that fueled resistance to his rule. People who at first welcomed the French as liberators now felt that they were being exploited by foreign invaders. NB inadvertently accelerated the cause for German unification.

The Fall of Napoleon:

  • Aura of Invincibility

    • He was considered the greatest military mind. He was overly ambitious and this caused disastrous mistakes that led to his downfall.

  • Continental System

    • In 1806, NB closed all European ports to British ships and goods. NB hoped that his Continental System would create a depression in Britain while promoting French prosperity.

  • Guerrilla Warfare in Spain

    • In 1808 Napoleon deposed Spain’s Bourbon rulers and installed his brother Joseph. Outraged the Spanish

    • Guerrilla fighters ambushed French troops and the French lost over 300,000 men.

  • Invasion of Russia (never a good idea)

    • The Continental System prevented Russia from exporting grain to Great Britain. When Tsar Alexander I refused to stop this trade, NB invaded Russia.

    • His army marched to Moscow. Alexander refused to surrender and forced NB to retreat. Cold weather, disease, and Russian attacks destroyed his army.

  • A Weakened State:

    • NB’s enemies took advantage of his weakness. Britain, Russia, Prussia, and Austria formed a Grand Alliance and defeated NB a the Battle of Nations at in October 1813.

    • He was forced to abdicate in 1814 when the enemies entered Paris. He was exiled. He escaped and rounded up an army, only to be defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815. He was once again exiled and lived alone in exile until he died in 1821

In Contrast to the American Revolution

Read pages 504-507 and complete the chart

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Old Regime


Louis XVI

Estates General

Tennis Court Oath

Abbe Sieyes

National Assembly

Storming of the Bastille

Mary Wollstonecraft




National Convention

Reign of Terror



Napoleonic Code

Concordat of 1801

Continental System

Battle of Waterloo


  1. How did the French Revolution challenge the Old Regime?

    1. Was it successful? Explain

  1. What impact did the French Revolution have on women? On the clergy?

  1. How can you make the argument that Napoleon was an “enlightened despot”?

  1. My college professor told me that the French Revolution was the most important even in European history since the Birth of Christ. Bold statement Dr. Pitrarcha… Why do you think she said this?

  1. If it didn’t come up in one of your previous answers, what impact did the French Revolution have on Europe? More particularly, on Germany?

Create a timeline of important events that occurred during and after the French Revolution.

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