Years of fiscal mismanagement contributed to the severe financial crisis that precipitated the French Revolution. Louis XVI, irresolute and stubborn, was unable to meet the overwhelming need for reform. The third estate, which constituted over 97 percent of the population, held some land, but rural poverty was widespread.
The French Revolution
The French Revolution was the most fundamental event of the nineteenth century, and its meaning, its causes, and its impact continue to be debated.
One debate is whether there was an autonomous peasant revolution directed against feudalism imbedded within the larger revolution, with the peasants seeking their own road to capitalism. Clearly hostility to harvest dues and other seigneurial burdens had unified many rural communities to the point that protests continued well after the National Assembly had declared feudalism abolished.
The British had been the first to resist Napoleon successfully, at Trafalgar and on the economic battlefields of the Continental System. Then had come Spanish resistance, followed by Russian.
Now in 1813 almost every nation in Europe joined the final coalition against the French. Napoleon raised a new army, but he could not so readily replace the equipment lost in Russia. In October 1813 he lost the “Battle of the Nations,” fought at Leipzig in Germany, necessitating his retreat into France.
The event that defeated Napoleon’s great designs was the French debacle in Russia. French actions after 1807 soon convinced Czar Alexander that Napoleon was not keeping the Tilsit bargain and was intruding on Russia’s sphere in eastern Europe.
German intellectuals launched a campaign to check the great influence that the French language and French culture had gained over their divided lands.
In Europe the political and military consequences of the Continental System formed a decisive and disastrous chapter in Napoleonic history, a chapter that opened in 1807 when the emperor decided to impose the system on Britain’s traditional ally, Portugal.
The Portuguese expedition furnished Napoleon with an excuse for the military occupation of neighboring Spain. In 1808 he overthrew the Spanish royal family and made his brother Joseph his puppet king of Spain.