Poverty, social divisions, and economic crisis led to the French Revolution and a reign of terror. Napoleon Bonaparte took power in a coup d'etat and tried to overthrow Europe's old order. After his costly military campaigns, he was defeated at Waterloo, Belgium, and exiled.
Section 1 The French Revolution Begins
Poverty and deep social divisions were the backdrop of the French Revolution. On the eve of the revolution, financial crisis gripped the government of Louis XVI. Rather than accept higher taxes, the commoners in France's legislative body, the Estates-General, broke off to form a National Assembly. Anticipating an attack by the king's forces, commoners then stormed the Bastille prison, marking the start of the Revolution. The new Assembly took control of the Catholic Church and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. The document was inspired in part by the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Assembly then wrote a constitution establishing a limited monarchy and a Legislative Assembly. France was soon at war with Austria, where some feared the revolution might spread. Louis XVI was taken captive by the Paris Commune. The commune called for a National Convention and forced the revolution into a more violent phase.
Section 2 Radical Revolution and Reaction
During the first years of the revolution, a republic was established, Louis XVI was executed, and thousands of people were killed on suspicion of opposing the revolution. While factions fought over control within France, European states fearing the spread of revolution made plans to invade France. The National Convention responded by forming a Committee of Public Safety. The committee led a 12-month Reign of Terror, executing close to 40,000 suspected enemies and expunging signs of Catholic influence. The committee also raised the largest army in European history and repelled the invading armies. With the crisis past, the National Convention ended the Reign of Terror and executed its zealous leader, Maximilien Robespierre. Power shifted into the hands of more moderate middle-class leaders who produced a constitution in 1795. The constitution called for a two-house legislative body and an executive committee, called the Directory. The Directory faced mounting problems. In 1799 a popular General, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized power in a coup d'état.
Section 3 The Age of Napoleon
Napoleon formed a new government, the consulate, in which he held absolute power. In 1802 he was crowned emperor and signed a peace treaty with Russia, Great Britain, and Austria. At home, he made peace with the Catholic Church and created a functioning bureaucracy. His Napoleonic Code preserved many of the rights gained in the revolution. War was soon renewed. By 1807, Napoleon had created a French empire. In parts of the empire, Napoleon sought to spread the revolution. However, his invasions had contributed to the spread of nationalism as well. This, along with British sea power, would spell his defeat. After a disastrous invasion of Russia, other European nations attacked Napoleon's army and captured Paris. Napoleon was exiled from France, and the monarchy was restored. Napoleon returned to power briefly, only to face final military defeat against a combined Prussian and British force at Waterloo and to be exiled once again.