The American and French Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis

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  • The United Kingdom has 13 colonies on the east coast of North America. Britain wanted raw materials from their colonies and held a monopoly on trade. The colonies were subjected to the authority of the British king, imposed taxes on the settlers, and the settlers were not represented in the British Parliament.
  • The US Declaration of Independence: 1776, on 4th July, representatives of the 13 colonies signed the Declaration of Independence.
  • The War of Independence and the First Constitution: The colonies, led by General George Washington, won decisive victories. Britain recognized the United States as an independent nation. The United States of America Constitution was the first in history; it established national sovereignty and the separation of powers.
  • The causes of the revolution:
  • Social unrest: the wealthy bourgeoisie wanted political power, and the peasantry faced numerous taxes they had to pay.
  • Economic crisis: bad harvests caused rising prices, hunger, and social unrest. The Royal Treasury underwent a crisis because of overspending.
  • The Enlightenment
  • In 1787, the king convened an Assembly of Notables to be able to approve a new tax for the privileged.

The king called the Estates-General in May 1789 at Versailles. In the Estates-General, each estate issued a single vote, despite the fact that the commoners formed the vast majority. The Third Estate had requested one vote per person. In June, representatives of the Third Estate asked the nobility and clergy to deliberate together and not separately. The Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly. They met in an indoor tennis court and took the Tennis Court Oath to stay together until France had a constitution. For this reason, it was renamed the National Constituent Assembly.

The revolutionary groups in Paris stormed the Bastille prison on the 14th July 1789. In rural areas, in August, the Constituent Assembly introduced a series of reforms.

  • It abolished feudal rights.
  • It published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

In September 1791, the first Constitution of France was established, including national sovereignty, parliamentary monarchy, and separation of powers.

  • Nobility and clergy emigrated and conspired against the Revolution from outside France.
  • The Assembly declared war on Austria, and Prussia invaded France.
  • Some revolutionaries wanted more radical reforms.
  • In August 1792, they stormed the Tuileries Palace, and the monarch was removed by the Assembly.
  • The convention 1792-1794:

Following the insurrection, a National Convention governed France. The strongest groups were the Girondins, moderate, and Jacobins or radical. The Girondins controlled the Assembly first.

      • The Girondin Convention 1792-1793:
  • The monarchy was abolished, and the republic was proclaimed.
  • Louis XVI was executed by guillotine, and the European powers declared war.
  • Royalist and Catholic uprising in the Vendee region.
  • The Jacobin National Convention 1793-1794:
  • Fear that the Revolution was in danger led to the Montagnards, led by Robespierre, seizing power.
  • A constitution was signed in 1793, establishing popular sovereignty and universal male suffrage. Robespierre established a dictatorship.
  • The period called the Terror, anyone suspected of not supporting the Republic could be tried and sentenced to death.
  • Robespierre gradually lost support. In 1794, moderate revolutionaries arrested him, then guillotined.
  • The Directory 1795-1799:
  • To avoid a new dictatorship, a new constitution (1795) was adopted.
  • National sovereignty
  • Census suffrage
  • Separation of powers: executive power was held by a five-member Directory

The new regime had to deal with:

  • Royalists led revolts to restore the Bourbon dynasty. Napoleon Bonaparte stopped this revolt and became very popular. The Directory sent him to fight in Italy.
  • In November 1799, Napoleon carried out a coup d’état, and a consulate was created, power was exercised by 3 consuls.

  • The Consulate:

Napoleon held all the power; he was appointed First Consul and Consul for Life. He drew up a civil code, Bank of France, and signed a Concordat with the Pope.

  • The Napoleonic empire:  In 1804, he declared himself emperor and pursued an expansionist policy. He was defeated by the British at Trafalgar (1805) and conquered many parts of Europe in a few years, with notable victories against the Austrians in Austerlitz (1805). The Continental Blockade was Napoleon’s attempt to stop British trade in Europe. The Portuguese did not accept this, so Napoleon invaded Portugal and occupied Spain. Russia started trading with the UK. In 1812, Napoleon attempted to invade Russia but was defeated. In 1813, he was defeated at the Battle of Leipzig. In Spain, he abdicated in April 1814, went into exile on the island of Elba, returned for 100 days, but was defeated at Waterloo (1815), and deported to Saint Helena, where he died in 1821.
  • The return to the Old Regime:

After Napoleon was defeated, a reaction against the French Revolution began. This period is the Conservative order.

  • The Congress of Vienna and alliances:

The great European powers met at the Congress of Vienna 1815, to guarantee peace and avoid new revolutions. The map of Europe was modified:

  • France returned to the frontiers before the revolution.

  • States were reinforced around France as a protective barrier of the Netherlands acquired Belgium.

The European powers formed alliances to consolidate the Conservative order:

  • The Holy Alliance (Prussia, Russia and Austria) against liberalism, objective intervene where necessary to stop any revolutionary movement.

The attempts to return to the Old Regime failed, revolutions broke out, influenced by:

  • National movements: after 1815, political boundaries did not reflect people’s language and culture, states, like Ottoman and Austrian empires, ruled over many different countries.
  • Liberalism: French revolution spread liberalism, powers of a monarch needed to be restricted by a constitution that respected the sovereignty of the people and individual liberties
  • The revolution of 1848: mixed liberal and nationalist ideas with demands for worker’s rights, there was also a democratic element, as universal suffrage was demand.
  • France rebelled against Louis Philippe the Orleans, conservative and corrupt, the king was deposed and second French republic was declared. Napoleon Bonaparte become president, however grew more and more authoritarian, led a coup and declared the second French Empire.


In the 19th century people believed that state borders should coincided with religious, ethnic, linguistic and other boundaries, nationalist ideology emerged. National sentimental grew, influence by a share language, history, culture and sometimes religion. There are 2 types of nationalism:

  • Divisive nationalism: called for the different independence of nations, Greece and Belgium.
  • Unifying nationalism: called for the unification of territories independent or under the control of another state, Germany and Italy.
  • The unification of Italy:

In the 19th century, the Italian Peninsula was divided into several states, some under foreign control, Italians shared a common language and history.

The Kingdom of Piedmont: Piedmont unified the northern states, fighting 2 wars against the Austrians. From the south, revolutionary Garibaldi took control of Naples and gave it to Vittorio Emmanuele, who became king of Italy. In 1870 the newly formed Italian Kingdom occupied the Papal States and finished the unification.


In 1815, German territory was divided into 39 states, several processes promoted unity:

  • In 1834 Prussia organized a customs union, a free trade area without customs duties.
  • King Wilhelm I of Prussia and his prime minister Bismarck accelerate the unification through 3 wars.

  • The stages of unification: the unification of Germany took 3 wars for different Germans speaking territories:
  1. Against Denmark: annexed 2 states.
  2. Against Austria: Austria, in 1866 Prussia formed the North German Confederation.
  3. Against France: defeated the French emperor Napoleon III in 1871, France cedes the territories of Alsace and Lorraine to Germany. The south German states agree to join Germany.

In 1871, the Second German Empire was proclaimed, Wilhelm I was crowned Kaiser. Germany one of the leading European nations in the years before the First World War.

  • Liberalism: political system based on the ideas of the enlightenment and the French Revolution, mainly: separation of powers, national sovereignty, suffrage, etc. 
  • Suffrage: the right to vote. Can be limited or universal.
  • Continental blockade: economic policy by Napoleon consisting on banning trading with England in Europe.

Estates General: the name given to the French parliament prior to the French Revolutio

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