Go to The Time Traveller homepage

The Age of Revolutions

France after
the Revolution

Keith Tankard
The Time Traveller
Updated: 14 December 2009
(Contact the Project Coordinator)

It is with great sadness that we have to announce that the creator of Knowledge4Africa, Dr T., has passed away. Helping people through his website gave him no end of pleasure. If you had contact with him and would like to leave a message, please send us an e-mail here.

The French Revolution undoubtedly had a major impact on the history of Europe, and life would not be the same again. It is probable that, had the revolution restricted itself to constitutional reforms, the gentle evolution of the previous century would have continued.

As it was, however, the Reign of Terror enabled Napoleon Bonaparte to seize power and he embarked upon a decade and more of conquest. By the time that peace was restored in 1815, circumstances were so markedly different that Europe would spiral into a period of revolutionary change.


Because of changing circumstances, dramatic new forces would make themselves felt and a sensible student of history must become acquainted with these: liberalism, socialism, republicanism, communism, nationalism. The first half of the 19th century would therefore be one of revolution in Europe as the people attempted to grapple with the new ideas. Ultimately, however, reactionary forces would win the day.

The new French constitution drafted by the National Assembly in 1789 established the principle of democracy based on universal male suffrage. It was a unique occurrence for Europe where the only state to have given some semblance of constitutional rights to its population was England, but even then the right to vote was marginal. Where democracy had been a natural evolution, as in the case of the American colonies, it is probably natural that it would thrive in fertile soil.

The European case, however, is markedly different. No state in Europe had experienced democracy and the French National Assembly was dabbling therefore in something which neither the rulers nor the people fully appreciated.

Perhaps it is that which explains the vacillation of France's history over the following century. During the 125 years from 1789 to 1914, France had no less than four dictatorships, two constitutional monarchies, two empires and three republics. In the French case, therefore, democracy appeared to be a concept remarkably difficult to apply in reality.


The principle of Legitimacy, dictated by the Congress of Vienna at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, was adhered to with the restoration of the Bourbon Louis XVIII to the French throne. Although the actual form of government was not imposed by the Congress nations, Louis XVIII nevertheless conformed to their wishes by accepting a constitutional government.

Because he had no wish to have a constitution forced on him, Louis decided to issue the Constitution or Charter himself. It held the advantage of enabling him to ignore the revolutionary principle of a popular sovereignty and allowed him to restore his position according to the principle of Divine Right of Kings.

The new constitution was therefore basically conservative, yet France had already experienced 25 years of changes and could not return to the status quo of the pre-1789 years.

The new Charter provided for an Upper House and for an elected Chamber of Deputies or Lower House, much along the lines of the British system. The franchise or vote was limited to persons over 30, who paid a minimum of 300 francs in direct tax and so was confined to a relatively small group.

The great majority of the population had no say in government, similar once again to the British system. Unlike the pre-1789 period, however, where the little power that there was lay in the hands of the clergy and of the nobility, the 1815 constitution gave power to the wealthy bourgeoisie.

The Charter maintained the social reorganisation of the French Revolution and the administrative reforms of Napoleon. Louis XVIII therefore accepted the judicial, social and administrative reforms of the revolutionary and Napoleonic periods but the king reserved the right to issue special regulations and ordinances if the safety of the state was threatened, which gave him the authority to repeal any ordinance which did not suit him. Moreover, freedom of the press was limited.

There were in essence three political groupings in France. The first were the reactionary Ultra-Royalists, consisting mainly of the nobility and upper clergy. These people were radical conservatives (reactionaries) who detested everything that the Revolution represented and they wanted the total restoration of their privileges as under the Ancient Regime. They represented a danger to the stability of the King's position, however, because they rejected his Charter as being too liberal.

There were the Moderates or Constitutional Royalists, mainly wealthy bourgeoisie who supported the Charter and who wished to uphold and strengthen the constitutional monarchy. Most were Liberals, i.e. those who believed that the only way to prosperity was through a system of free trade or laissez faire (i.e. no governmental interference in the working of the economy).

The third group consisted of the moderate to radical Left, i.e. the Independents, Democrats, Republicans, Bonapartists and Socialists. Although this group was fragmented, it was united by a dislike for the Bourbon monarchy and a devotion to Revolutionary ideals. Its adherents were also a danger to the stability of the King's position because they rejected the Charter as being too conservative.


The unpopularity of the Bourbon regime was initially shown in 1814 by the widespread support given to Napoleon on his return from Elba. After Waterloo, however, a counter-revolution occurred in which those who had supported Napoleon during his "100 Days" were persecuted, and in places (especially in the south of France) there were several massacres.

The elections which followed were a victory for the Ultra-Royalists because the new Chamber of Deputies contained a strong reactionary majority which immediately set about legislation to undo the Revolution.

The king nevertheless feared that such action would lead to another revolution and so, supported by a moderate Upper Chamber, he dissolved the Chamber of Deputies in September 1816. He thereupon used his own powers to manipulate the electoral procedure so as to ensure the return of a moderate constitutionalist majority. In so doing, he managed to weaken both the Ultra-Royalists and the Radical Left.

The new government under Prime Minister Richelieu (the second Richelieu to make it big in France!) had strong support in the Chamber of Deputies and so was able to promote constructive legislation. Indeed, financial reforms were so successful that France was able to pay off a rather large war indemnity within only three years of Waterloo.

As a result, France was on a sounder financial footing in 1818 than any other country in Europe. Military reforms in turn ensured that the country once again had a large and powerful army. Liberal reforms were also enacted in the form of a Press Act and electoral legislation which favoured the liberal bourgeoisie. As a result, the elections of 1817, 1818 and 1819 saw a gradual shifting of power towards the left.

The power-shift towards the left perturbed the reactionary forces in France and climaxed in 1820 with the assassination of the Duke of Berri, son of the Count of Artois, leader of the Ultra-Royalists and heir to the throne.

There was an immediate reactionary backlash, resulting in the appointment of a new right-wing ministry which immediately began undoing the work of its predecessors. Press censorship was re-introduced and all new publications had to be submitted to the government for approval. Electoral laws were adjusted to suit the reactionary element.

In the elections of 1821 the Ultra-Royalists gained an overwhelming majority. In 1824 a new law extended the term of office of yet another reactionary Chamber to seven years. Public protests, student riots and the formation of secret political societies which plotted the overthrow of the Bourbon regime were not immediately successful.


Louis XVIII died in September 1824 and was succeeded by his brother, the Count of Artois, who became known as Charles X. He had no desire to rule as a constitutional monarch and immediately began the work of undoing the Revolution. Yet the reactionary action of the government only served to stiffen the opposition. This showed in the elections of 1827 where the Ultra-Royalist bloc was considerably weakened.

Charles attempted to remedy that situation by increasing the number of members of the Upper Chamber and by disbanding the Lower House but the opposition was returned in greater numbers at the following elections.

In 1830 the Chamber of Deputies passed a motion of no confidence in the reactionary government by a majority of 221 votes, to which Charles responded by again dissolving the Chamber. The ensuing elections saw the opposition groups returned in even greater numbers.

In July 1830 Charles X introduced a series of arbitrary measures which he hoped would safeguard his throne. These "July Ordinances" (also known as "The Ordinance of St Cloud") abolished freedom of the press, dissolved the lower House and reduced the electorate by 75 percent.

There was an immediate reaction against the ordinances. The press claimed that they were unconstitutional and refused to obey, with the result that Charles ordered the closing of the printing presses.

The printers thereupon gathered in the streets and encouraged other workers to demand the dissolution of the government. Resistance to the king spread rapidly and civil war broke out within two days of the proclamation of the Ordinances.

Charles X attempted to remedy the situation by dismissing his government and repealing the July Ordinances. He then abdicated in favour of his grandson but the Chamber of Deputies refused to accept his concessions and a temporary municipal government was set up in Paris.

The revolution was virtually bloodless and almost totally confined to the municipal boundaries of Paris. Charles X went into exile and Louis Philippe, Duke of Orleans, was installed on the throne as the "Citizen King".

The democratic ideal was still too new, however, and Philippe's government would also fail, and so would the next, and the next, and the next. It would take more than a century for democracy in France to find its rightful place and it would only be as late as the 1950s, with President de Gaulle's creation of the 5th Republic, that stability would at last be achieved.

See also:

Contact: The Project Coordinator