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French Revolution

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4. Discuss the legacies of the French Revolution, or of Napoleon (or both, if you prefer.) To what degree was the world a different place in 1815 from what it had been in 1789? Why were these changes so "revolutionary? Explain, citing specific examples.

The French Revolution had a powerful impact that can be seen in the reactions of those who were there to experience it, and it has been arousing strong emotions ever since. The French Revolution gave a world dominated by aristocratic privilege and monarchical tyranny a hope of freedom. Twentieth-century revolutionaries looked to 1789 as a kind of template for revolutionary events ("Legacies of the Revolution").

North Americans were very interested in the French Revolution. Americans believed that the events of 1789 drew heavily on their own experience. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen seemed to be very similar to the states' bill of rights. An even more direct influence was when Thomas Jefferson, who was staying in France at the time, gave ideas to the legislators through the Marquis de Lafayette. Although the French Revolution took a far different path than the North American variety, this interaction was close, so it is not surprising that the initial U.S. reaction to the Revolution was positive. Throughout the revolution, the Republican Party, led by Jefferson, remained generally favorable ("Legacies of the Revolution").

Napoleon's greatest achievement was his coding of the laws. Prior to the Revolution, France did not have any laws. Instead they had almost 300 different legal systems. During the revolution, efforts were made to create a single law code. In the end it was Napoleon who brought the work to completion in seven codes of law. The most important code was the Civil Code ("Napoleon").

The Civil Code preserved many of the positives of the revolution by recognizing the principle of equality of all citizens before the law, the right of the individual to choose a profession, religious toleration, and the abolition of serfdom and feudalism. Property rights were still protected and strikes were outlawed. The rights of some people were strictly curtailed by the Civil Code, however. Divorce was easy for both parties and allowed children to inherit property equally ("Napoleon").

People were not happy with Napoleon's iron-fisted rule. He barely escaped two assassination attempts and a kidnapping plot, all somehow overlooked by his eagle-eyed head of police, Joseph Fouché. By 1808, Fouché and Napoleon's former foreign minister Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand had joined in a plot against Napoleon. Victories on the battlefield failed to silence opposition to his rule. Pope Pius VII excommunicated Napoleon and was arrested for it. Alexander broke the Treaty of Tilsit with France by trading with England, openly challenging Napoleon's power (Holmberg).

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