Bruce Morrison » The French Revolution and Napoleon, 1789–1815

The French Revolution and Napoleon, 1789–1815

The French Revolution establishes a new political order, Napoleon Bonaparte gains and loses an empire, and European states forge a balance of power.


Section 1: The French Revolution Begins

Section 2: Revolution Brings Reform and Terror

Section 3: Napoleon Forges an Empire

Section 4: Napoleon’s Empire Collapses

Section 5: The Congress of Vienna


Section 1: The French Revolution Begins

Economic and social inequalities in the Old Regime help cause the French Revolution.


The Old Order


The Old Regime

  • Old Regime—social and political system inFrance during the 1770s
  • Estates—three social classes ofFrance’s Old Regime


The Privileged Estates

  • First Estate—Catholic clergy—own 10 percent land, pay few taxes
  • Second Estate—rich nobles—2 percent population, own 20 percent land
  • The Third Estate97 percent of people are peasants, urban workers, middle class Have few privileges, pay heavy taxes, want change


The Forces of Change


Enlightenment Ideas

  • Enlightenment ideas inspire some in Third Estate


Economic Troubles

  • High taxes and rising costs damage economy by 1780s
  • King Louis XVIand his wife Marie Antoinette known for extravagance
  • Louis doubles nation’s debt; banks refuse to lend more money


A Weak Leader

  • Louis’s poor decisions and lack of patience add toFrance’s problems
  • He callsEstates-General—meeting of representatives from all three estates


Dawn of the Revolution


The National Assembly

  • Third Estate has little power under old rules
  • Sieyès persuades them to make major changes in French government
  • Third Estate sets up National Assembly—new legislature to make reforms
  • Tennis Court Oath—delegates decide to write new constitution forFrance


Storming the Bastille

  • Rumors fly inParisthat Louis wants to suppress National Assembly
  • Mob attacks and seizesBastille, killing guards on July 14, 1789


A Great Fear Sweeps France



  • Rumors and panic spread throughoutFrance
  • Great Fear—attacks by peasants taking place acrossFrance
  • Peasants destroy legal papers binding them to feudal system
  • In October 1789, Parisian women revolt over rising price of bread
  • They demand action, forcing Louis to return fromVersaillesto Paris


Section 2: Revolution Brings Reform and Terror

The revolutionary government of France makes reforms but also uses terror and violence to retain power.


The Assembly Reforms France


The Rights of Man

  • National Assembly adoptsDeclaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
  • Revolutionary leaders use the slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”


A State-Controlled Church

  • National Assembly seizes church lands, turns clergy into public officials
  • This action alarms many peasants, who are devout Catholics


Louis Tries to Escape

  • Louis, worried about his future, attempts to escapeFrance
  • Revolutionaries catch the royal family nearNetherlands’ border


Divisions Develop


A Limited Monarchy

  • In September 1791, Assembly finishes new constitution
  • Legislative Assembly—new body created to pass laws

Factions Split France

  • Major problems, including debt, food shortages remain
  • Assembly split into Radicals, Moderates, Conservatives
  • Émigrés—nobles who flee country, want Old Regime back in power
  • Sans-culottes—lower class who want more change from the Revolution


War and Execution


Problems with Other Countries

  • Austrians and Prussians want Louis in charge ofFrance;France declares war


France at War

  • Prussian forces soon threaten to attackParis
  • Parisian mob jails royal family, kills guards
  • Mob breaks into prisons, killing over 1,000, including many who support king
  • Pressured by mob, Legislative Assembly deposes the king and then dissolves
  • National Convention takes office in September, forming French republic


Jacobins Take Control

  • Jacobins—radical political organization behind 1792 governmental changes
  • After a close vote, Louis XVI is found guilty of treason and beheaded
  • Guillotine—machine designed during the Revolution to behead people


The War Continues

  • French army wins great victory against Prussians and Austrians
  • In 1793Britain,Spain, Holland join forces against France
  • National Convention orders draft of 300,000 to reinforce army


The Terror Grips France


Divided Country

  • Not all people inFrancesupport all changes of the Revolution


Robespierre Assumes Control

  • Maximilien Robespierre—Jacobin leader rulesFrance for a year
  • Becomes leader of theCommittee for Public Safety, a dictator
  • Reign of Terror—Robespierre’s rule, which includes killing many opponents
  • Thousands die during the Terror, including former allies and Marie Antoinette
  • 85 percent of those who die during the Terror are middle or lower class


End of the Terror


Another Change in Government

  • In July 1794, Robespierre arrested, executed
  • Terror results in public opinion shifting away from radicals
  • Moderate leaders write new constitution
  • Two-house legislature and five-man Directory restore order
  • New government makesNapoleon Bonapartecommander of armies


Section 3: Napoleon Forges an Empire

Napoleon Bonaparte, a military genius, seizes power in France and makes himself emperor.


Napoleon Seizes Power


Early Life

  • Napoleon Bonaparte—born inCorsica, attends military school, joins army


Hero of the Hour

  • In 1795, Napoleon defeats royalist rebels attacking National Convention
  • Napoleon wins stunning victories inItaly, gaining popularity
  • News of his defeats inEgyptis suppressed


Coup d’État

  • In November 1799, he carries outcoup d’état—seizure of power
  • Napoleon defeats British, Russians, Austrians who join forces against him


Napoleon Rules France


Vote of Approval

  • New constitution is approved throughplebiscite—vote of the people


Restoring Order at Home

  • To fix economy, he sets up national banking system, efficient tax collection
  • Establisheslycées—government-run public schools to train officials
  • Signsconcordat—agreement—with pope restoring Catholicism inFrance
  • CreatesNapoleonic Code—uniform system of laws


Napoleon Crowned as Emperor

  • In December 1804, Napoleon crowns himself emperor ofFrance


Napoleon Creates an Empire


Loss of American Territories

  • In 1801, Napoleon attempts to retake colony of Saint Domingue but fails
  • Gives up on theAmericasand concentrates on Europe
  • Sells theLouisianaTerritory to United States for $15 million in 1803


Conquering Europe

  • Britain,Russia, Austria, Sweden join forces against Napoleon
  • Napoleon crushes enemy forces in several brilliant battles
  • Napoleon forcesAustria,Russia, Sweden to sign peace treaties


The Battle of Trafalgar

  • In 1805, British winBattle of Trafalgar—ensures British naval superiority
  • This defeat forces Napoleon to give up plan of invadingBritain
  • Looks for another way to controlBritain


The French Empire

  • Napoleon controls Europe except forBritain,Portugal, Sweden, Ottomans
  • Has puppet rulers in some countries, alliances with others
  • French Empire reaches largest extent from 1807 to 1812


Section 4: Napoleon’s Empire Collapses

Napoleon’s conquests aroused nationalistic feelings across Europe and contributed to his downfall.


Napoleon’s Costly Mistakes


The Continental System

  • Napoleon strikesBritainthrough blockade—forced closing of ports
  • Continental System—economic plan to strengthen Europe, weakenBritain
  • Smugglers and uncooperative allies makeFrance’s blockade fail
  • Britainresponds with blockade of its own, led by its stronger navy
  • Americans fightBritainin War of 1812; war does no major damage to Britain


The Peninsular War

  • Napoleon sends troops acrossSpainto attack Portugal, causing protest
  • Napoleon makes his brother king ofSpain, making things worse
  • Spanish fight asguerrillas—small groups that attacked and then disappear
  • British aid Spanish guerrillas
  • Napoleon loses 300,000 soldiers during this Peninsular War
  • Nationalist rebels fight the French in other conquered territories


The Invasion of Russia

  • Relations withRussiabreak down, Napoleon decides to invade
  • In June 1812, Napoleon’s army marches intoRussiawith 420,000 men
  • Russians usescorched-earth policy—destroying crops, livestock
  • In September 1812, Russians retreat fromMoscowafter Battle of Borodino
  • Napoleon findsMoscowabandoned and burning
  • Napoleon retreats, losing thousands of soldiers to raids, cold weather


Napoleon’s Downfall


Napoleon Suffers Defeat

  • Britain,Prussia, Sweden, Russia, Austria join forces against Napoleon
  • Napoleon raises another army, but meets quick defeat by allied powers
  • Napoleon finally surrenders and is exiled toislandof Elba


The Hundred Days

  • Louis XVIII, new king, is soon overthrown and Napoleon returns from exile
  • Waterloo—British, Prussian forces defeat Napoleon’s army
  • This defeat ends Hundred Days—Napoleon’s last attempt at power


Section 5: The Congress of Vienna

After exiling Napoleon, European leaders at the Congress of Vienna try to restore order and reestablish peace.


Metternich’s Plan for Europe


A Meeting of Nations

  • Congress ofVienna—series of meetings that reshape Europe


Metternich and the Great Powers

  • Klemens von Metternich—foreign minister ofAustria, influential at Congress
  • Balance of power—a chief Metternich goal, with no one country a threat


The Containment of France

  • Kingdom of theNetherlandsformed, and Switzerland made independent
  • Austriadominates new German Confederation of 39 German states
  • Kingdomof Sardinia is strengthened by adding Genoa


Balance of Power

  • European powers weakenFrancebut leave it mostly intact



  • Legitimacy—monarchs deposed by Napoleon are returned to thrones
  • Leaders hope to restore order through these changes
  • Congress ofViennasucceeds in getting all European governments together
  • Fair deals are worked out so that the meeting does not lead to more war
  • European nations agree to preserve peace, which lasts almost 40 years


Political Changes Beyond Vienna


Conservative Europe

  • HolyAlliance—Russia, Prussia, Austria pledge to fight revolution
  • Concert ofEurope—European nations pledge to help fight revolutions
  • Conservative governments rule acrossEurope, but new ideas have impact


Revolutions in Latin America

  • Napoleon’s replacing king ofSpainset off rebellions in Spanish America
  • Many former colonies ofSpainand Portugal gain independence


Long-Term Legacy

  • Britain,Prussia gain power; spreading nationalism leads to revolutions