French Revolution of 1848

French Revolution of 1848

The February 1848 Revolution in France ended the reign of King Louis-Philippe, and led to the creation of the French Second Republic (1848-1852).

The revolution established the principle of the "right to work" ("droit au travail"), and decided to establish "National Workshops" for the unemployed. At the same time a sort of industrial parliament was established at the Luxembourg Palace, under the presidency of Louis Blanc, with the object of preparing a scheme for the organization of labour. These tensions between liberal Orleanist and Radical Republicans and Socialists would cause the June Days Uprising a few months later.


As per the Charter of 1814, Louis XVIII ruled France as the head of a constitutional monarchy. Upon Louis XVIII's death, his brother, the Count of Artois, ascended to the throne, becoming Charles X. Supported by the ultra-royalists, Charles X was an extremely unpopular reactionary monarch whose aspirations were far more grand than those of his brother, Louis XVIII. Charles X had no desire to rule as a constitutional monarch, taking various steps to strengthen his own authority as monarch and weaken that of the lower house.

In 1830, Charles X issued the Four Ordinances of St.Cloud. These ordinances abolished freedom of the press, reduced the electorate by 75%, and dissolved the lower house. This action provoked an immediate reaction from the citizenry, and they soon revolted against the monarchy during the Three Glorious Days of July 1830. As a result, Louis Philippe, of the Orleanist branch, rose to power, replacing the old Charter by the Charter of 1830, and his rule became known as the July Monarchy.

Nicknamed the "Bourgeois Monarch", Louis Philippe sat at the head of a moderately liberal state controlled mainly by educated elites. Supported by the Orleanists, he was opposed on his right by the Legitimists (former ultra-royalists) and on his left by the Republicans and Socialists. Under his rule, privileged groups were favored. Elitism resulted in the disenfranchisement of much of the middle and working classes, with only roughly 1% of the population having the right to vote by 1848. Even though France had a free press and trial by jury, only landholders were permitted to vote, which alienated the petty bourgeoisie from the high bourgeoisie. Louis Philippe was viewed as generally indifferent to the needs of society, especially to those members of the middle class who were excluded from the political arena. Early in 1848, some Orleanist liberals, such as Adolphe Thiers, had turned against him, disappointed by Louis Philippe's opposition to parliamentarism.

Alexis de Tocqueville had observed, "We are sleeping together on a volcano . . . A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon." Lacking the property qualifications to vote, the lower classes were about to erupt in revolt.

Economic and international influences

The French middle class watched changes in Britain with interest. When Britain's Reform Act of 1832 extended enfranchisement to anybody paying £10 or more per year (previously the vote was restricted to landholders), France's free press took interest. While the working class was perhaps slightly better off than Britain's Fact|date=August 2007, unemployment threw skilled workers down to the level of the proletariat. The only social (nominal) law of the July Monarchy was passed in 1841, prohibiting the use of child labor from children under 8 years of age and the use of night labor from children less than 13 years old. This law was routinely flouted.

The year 1846 saw a financial crisis and bad harvests, and the following year saw an economic depression. A poor railroad system hindered aid efforts, and the Peasant rebellions that resulted were forcefully crushed. Perhaps a third of Paris was on the dole. "Dangerous" writers proliferated such as Louis Blanc ("The right to work") and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon ("Property is theft!", "God is evil"); secret societies such as the Saint-Simonians sprang up.

The Second Republic

On February 26th, 1848, the liberal opposition came together to organize a provisional government, called the Second Republic. Two major goals of this republic were Universal suffrage and Unemployment relief. Universal male suffrage was enacted on March 2, giving France nine million new voters. As in all other European nations, women did not have the right to vote. However, during this time a proliferation of political clubs emerged, including women's organizations. Relief for the unemployed was achieved through National Workshops, which guaranteed French citizens' "right to work". In 1848, 479 newspapers were founded. There was also a 54% decline in the number of businesses in Paris, as most of the wealthy had left; there was a corresponding decline in the luxury trade and credit was unobtainable.

The rise of conservatism within the Second Republic

The provisional government was wildly disorganized. After roughly a month, conservatives began to oppose the new government, using the rallying cry "order", which the new republic lacked. Popular uncertainty about the liberal foundations of the provisional government became apparent in the April elections, where, despite the agitation from the left, voters elected a constituent assembly which was primarily moderate and conservative. In May, Jacques-Charles Dupont de l'Eure, chairman of the provisional government, made way for the Executive Commission, a body of state acting as Head of State with five co-presidents.

As is often the case in revolutions, the 1848 revolution saw a major split between the Parisian citizens and those from the more rural areas. The majority of the French population resided in the countryside as in 1848 most people were still tied to the land. However, the radicals in Paris were determined to keep the revolutionary movement alive by pressuring the government to head an international "crusade" for democracy, in which they promoted the independence of states, such as Poland, which had, at the time, been divided amongst and controlled by the foreign powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria, and was also undergoing its own period of revolt (See Wielkopolska Uprising).

The government set out to establish a stronger economy and provide social services. New taxes were passed on the landed class, peasants, and small farmers, with the taxes intended to pay for social services for the unemployed in the cities. The taxes were widely ignored, and the new government lost the support of rural France. Hard-working rural farmers did not want to pay for unemployed city people and their new "Right to Work," which ballooned the population of Paris with far more job seekers than there were jobs. Some jobs were provided, such as building roads and re-planting trees, but it was clear the demands of government were far more pressing than the revolutionaries had foreseen.

The need for organization was imminent. Evidence of this is in the victory of the "Party of Order". On June 21, 1848, led by ideology far more conservative than had initially created the provisional government, the dominant members of the French state closed the National Workshops. This enraged many of the artisans and workers of Paris. Between June 23rd and June 26th, in what came to be known as the "June Days Uprising", the army executed a systematic assault against the revolutionary Parisian citizenry, targeting the blockaded areas of the city. Before, workers and "petite bourgeoisie" had fought together, but now, lines were tighter. The working classes had been abandoned by the bourgeois politicians who founded the provisional government. This would prove fatal to the Second Republic, which, without the support of the working classes, could not continue.

The "Party of Order" moved quickly to consolidate the conservative nature of the revolution, appointing general and statesman Louis Eugène Cavaignac to the head of the French state. Later, on the 10th of December, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte was elected president of the French Republic.

Class Struggles within the Revolution

To the French elite, the June Days uprising was something of a red scare. Karl Marx saw the "June Days" uprising as strong evidence of class conflict. Marx saw the revolution as being directed by the desires of the middle-class. While the bourgeoisie agitated for "proper participation", the workers themselves had other concerns. Many of the participants in the 1848 Revolution were of the "petite bourgeoisie" (the owners of small properties, merchants, shopkeepers, etc.), outnumbering the working classes (unskilled laborers working in mines, factories and stores, paid for their ability to perform manual labor and other work rather than their expertise) by about two to one. Therefore the provisional government, created to address the concerns of the liberal bourgeoisie, did not have enough of a foothold in the working classes. Support for the provisional government was especially weak in the countryside, where a vast amount of France's population was agricultural and traditionally less revolutionary. Though those in the countryside did have their own concerns, such as food shortages as a result of bad harvests, the concerns of the bourgeoisie were still too far-off from those of the lower classes. Also, the memory of the French Revolution was still fresh in the minds of the French. The Thermidorian reaction and the ascent of Napoleon III to the throne are evidence that the people preferred the safety of an able dictatorship to the uncertainty of revolution. Thus, one might argue, without the support of these large lower classes, the revolution of 1848 would not carry through, despite the hopes of the liberal bourgeoisie.

The End of the Revolution in France

Politics continued to tilt to the right, and the era of revolution in France came to an end. Louis Napoleon's family name of "Napoleon" rallied support, and after sweeping the elections he returned to the old order, purging republicans and returning the "vile multitude" (Thiers) to its former place. By the December 2, 1851 coup, he dissolved the National Assembly without having the constitutional right to do so, and became the sole ruler of France. Cells of resistance surfaced, but were put down, and the Second Republic was over. He reestablished universal suffrage, feared by the Republicans at the time who correctly expected the country-side to vote against the Republic, Louis Napoleon took the title Emperor Napoleon III, and the Second Empire began.

1848 Revolution in literature

* Gustave Flaubert's novel "L'éducation sentimentale" uses the 1848 revolution as a backdrop for its story.
* Karl Marx's Essay "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte" (1852) describes the 1848 revolution as a class struggle.
* Laura Kalpakian's novel "Cosette" uses the 1848 revolution as a primary part of the plot.
* Sylvia Townsend Warner's novel "Summer Will Show" uses the 1848 as a primary part of the plot.
* Kurt Andersen's novel "Heyday_(novel)" begins with one of the protagonists witnessing and unintentionally participating in the 1848 revolution.

See also

* Second Republic (1848-1852)
* France in the nineteenth century
* History of socialism
* The Revolutions of 1848 in the Habsburg areas
* June Days Uprising
* History of the French Left

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