Aimee Hall

The French Revolution

From 1789 to 1799 France was engulfed in a massive revolution. Jane Austen would have been 14 when the war started and 24 when it ended. The French Revolution began on May 5, 1789 when the Third Estate walked out of the Estate-General and declared itself the National Assembly on June 17. The Estates-General was a medieval representative institution convened on the order of King Louis XVI to find a way to pay of the massive debts incurred by the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and his father's extravagant lifestyle. The Estates-General was comprised of three estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. The Third Estate included everyone from the poor peasantry to the rich Bourgeoisie. Since each estate held one vote the Third Estate realized that it would always be out voted so they walked out.

In July of 1789, the Bastille was stormed and the peasant revolts began. In June of 1791 Louis and his family attempted to flee to England but they were captured and returned to Paris. The Constitution of 1791 created a limited constitutional monarchy, which is similar to the British government and severally limits the Kings power by establishing a legislature. Louis was not satisfied with merely being the head of state and in January 1793 he was executed. During the intervening years the French declared that they would assist all peoples seeking to escape from the tyranny of the monarchy, and in 1793 declared war on Britain.

The American Revolution had created a Government reform movement in England, but these movements were quickly stifled under the perceived threat from France. A revolution on the other side of the ocean is one thing, one that is right next-door is quite another. The British felt that they were a serious threat of revolution and a government lock down ensued. This led to the suspension of Habeas Corpus in 1794; therefore anyone could be imprisoned without any charges being brought against him or her.

Back in France, the peasantry was unhappy with the slow changes instituted by the Bourgeoisie who had done nothing to solve the food shortages and the poverty of the peasantry. Revolts and violence had engulfed France. Maximilien Robespierre lead the Committee of Public Safety, which decide in July 1793 to implement the following three actions: massive military mobilization, government control of the economy, and "systematic oppression of enemy's" (Chritie). Otherwise known as the Reign of Terror, the French executed 250,000 in roughly nine months and ended in Robespierre himself being guillotined. The French drafted a new constitution that created a weak five man executive branch known as the Directory in 1794. This was a part of an extreme conservative backlash.

The Napoleonic Wars

In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory and established the Consulate. Britain united with Russia, the Ottoman Empire, Austria and the Kingdom of Naples to form the Second Coalition whose goal was to defeat the French. This coalition was brought to an end in February 1801 with the Treaty of Luneville, and in March 1802 with the Peace of Amiens. In the Peace of Amiens Britain and France agreed to turn over the island of Malta to the Knights of Saint John of Jerusalem. In May of 1803, England declared war on France citing treaty violations; specifically that Malta was still in French possession.

In May 1804, when Austen was 29, Napoleon set in motion an elaborate plan for the invasion of England. The plan, which involved a tricking the British navy into following the French navy to the colonies while the French doubled back to England in order to protect Napoleon on his crossing the Channel, was thwarted by the speed and superiority of the British Admiralty.

In 1805, Britain formed the third coalition with Austria, Russia and Sweden. On October 21, 1805, Admiral Nelson and the British navy defeated Villaneuva's French Navy at Trafalgar, now memorialized by Trafalgar Square in London. Napoleon began the Continental system with the Berlin Decree in 1806. The Continental System banned all trade between England and the Continent, forcing the British to find other markets for their goods ultimately resulting in an expansion of the Empire. The Germans were closely aligned with Britain since George III still retained the title Elector of Hanover, and they started an intellectual rebellion against the ideas of the French enlightenment. The Spanish, who had allied themselves with France under the Third coalition, began a protracted guerrilla war, known as the Peninsular War. Fighting continued in Europe until 1807 when Russia and Prussia signed the Treaty of Tilsit after their defeat at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt in 1806 and the capture of Berlin. In 1808, Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother, declared himself King of Spain, and the English, who had helped Spain in the Peninsular War invade Madrid to force him out. During this period, the English had been excluded from trade with the continent, and had made it a policy to stop US ships from trading with the continent. This along with the British practice of "impressing" sailors or forcing American sailors into the British navy, led to the outbreak of the war of 1812. This war continued until 1815, when the Napoleonic Wars also ended, without a conclusive victory on either side.

In June 1812, Napoleon invaded Russia with the Grand Army to force the Russians to rejoin the Continental system, from which they had withdrawn in December 1810. In December of 1812, Napoleon rushed back to Paris, presumably realizing the futility of attacking Russia in winter. Six months later, Wellington and the British Army were threatening France from their position in Spain. Napoleon lost the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813 and Louis the XVIII was restored to the throne in 1814 after the Treaty of Fontainebleau in April in which Napoleon abdicated. The Treaty of Paris in May restored France to the borders of 1792, freeing a large part of Europe that had been conquered by Napoleon. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, from which he escaped in March 1815, and was finally defeated at the battle of Waterloo in June after the Hundred days War. Austen died a few years later in 1817.

One historian said, "Britain was likely to win the war, because Britain always won wars against France" (Mahon). Britain not only won the war with Napoleon they also benefited greatly from it. The Empire was expanded with the acquisition of South Africa in 1802 and Suriname in 1804, as well as territory in the Mediterranean. Since the war was fought on the continent and elsewhere, Britain got a thirty-year head start on the Industrial Revolution over the French. The fluctuating trade situation forced traders to increase trade with Latin America. The loss of the colonies and trade with the continent threatened the wages of skilled workers. However despite the trade restrictions Britain enjoyed a period of slow economic growth. The Napoleonic wars cost Britain approximately one billion pounds, or five times the national income of 1792. In order to finance the war, Britain instituted an income tax, switched over to a paper currency, and sold paper bonds. The circulation of paper money made the British bank system one of the most efficient in Europe, with generally uniform interest rates across the country. Another benefit was control over the high seas, which protected British trade and allowed for the expansion of the Empire, which would occur over the next century. Austen would have seen these changes as they occurred, though she probably could not guess how important they would be.