Eighteenth-century France was one of the most economically and politically tumultuous periods in history. Prior to this time, France had been ruled by a system of called the Ancien Régime. Known as an absolute monarchy, this political and social system gave complete power to the King of France. French royalty believed that they had been appointed by God to rule the nation, and they used this claim to justify a social order that was “based on privilege” (Berman, 50). Under the Ancien Régime, France was divided into three main categories known as estates: “the church, the nobility, and the rest” (Berman, 52). Throughout the eighteenth century, many of the citizens of France began to question this system of privilege. Important Enlightenment schools of thought such as natural liberty and democracy began to take root in France, exacerbating social tension and unrest between the estates. Developments in the French economy caused the third estate to “grow dramatically in size and… importance” to the national economy (Berman, 57). Additionally, during this time period, France chose to assist the American colonials in their revolution against the British. Consequently, American ideals such as freedom, government by elected representatives, and rejection of monarchy became increasingly popular in France. Despite the growing cries for reform from society’s lower classes, French nobility chose to ignore them because of the devastating social, political, and economic consequences that reforming the government would have on the nation. Together, these many factors combined to create the perfect backdrop for the bloody revolution looming on the horizon.
When the tensions finally exploded into revolution in 1789, violent conflicts broke out all across France. “A wave of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary violence threatened to overwhelm France” (Berman, 63). Any attempt to fill the political vacuum left by the King was met with chaos, conflict, and fear. Revolutionaries drew up several new constitutions, but each new regime ended in disaster. Instead of progressing toward order and peace, France became stuck in a violent, chaotic cycle of coups and power vacuums. In addition to the pandemonium within France, other European enemies outside the nation constantly threatened to invade French borders. This anarchy went on for over a decade, until a man named Napoleon Bonaparte came into the spotlight.
Napoleon was a young, charismatic military general. He quickly attained popularity among the revolutionaries due to his military successes. On November 9, 1799, Napoleon executed a bloodless coup on the directory of France. He rose to power and implemented a new regime, known as the French Consulate. Although Napoleon was the most powerful figure in this new government, the citizens of France were able to use their voices and elect their own representatives. The new constitution “mixed democratic and dictatorial elements in novel ways” (Berman, 68). Napoleon’s new regime was unlike anything the world had ever seen before, and on top of that, it was quite successful. “During his rule the coups, rebellions, food shortages, inflation, and overall lack of order that had played France for a decade ended.” (Berman, 70)
Napoleon’s regime was able to modernize France in ways that the antiquated Ancien Régime had been utterly incapable of. He essentially destroyed the former system of aristocratic privilege that had plagued France for centuries and laid a foundation for a much stronger financial system. These two changes in particular completely revolutionized France and created a new conception of the nation.
Berman, Democracy and Dictatorship, Chapter 4.