The Revolutions of 1848 101: The February Revolution in France

Foreword

The revolutions of 1848 are a separate chapter in the study of modern and contemporary European history. The “Springtime of the Peoples,” as they are called by some historians, played a decisive role in the development of the historical events of the 19th century, the 20th century, and also the present. This is the main reason why this 101 series of articles, dedicated to these revolutions, came into being. Specifically, reference will be made to the cases of many European countries and regions, such as France, the German States, the Italian States, Denmark, the territories of the Habsburg Empire, Sweden, Poland, and so on.


The Revolutions of 1848 series consist of nine main articles:


The French Revolution of February 1848, or The February Revolution, was perhaps the most important of the revolutions in Europe in 1848. It was even more catalytic than that of 1830, as it took on greater proportions and brought about radical changes in the French state and French society. It was ideologically motivated mainly by liberalism and socialism and for this, it caused conflicts between social classes. In an initial analysis, it overthrew the monarchy of Louis Philip who was in power from 1830 to 1848, although a few years later the conservative regime of Louis Napoleon, or Napoleon III, prevailed. It was also the first revolution to explicitly reject the order imposed on Europe after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 (more about the Congress of Vienna here). Reference is made to the events of February and also to the conflicts of June, also known as June Days, many times in the analysis of the French Revolution of 1848. This article of this 101 series will focus on the February outbreak and its aftermath.

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux  (1815–1884) in 	19th century.
Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 (1).

Before The Revolution

As it was referred to in the second introductory article of this 101 series (link here), after the July Revolution of 1830, Louis Philippe rose to power and his rule became known as the July Monarchy. He was supported by the Orléanists, a political party that boosted constitutional monarchy as a regime. Louis Philippe sat at the head of a moderately liberal state controlled mainly by educated elites and maintained the reforms of 1830. He was opposed by the Legitimists, former ultra-royalists and political rivals of the Orléanists, and by the Republicans and Socialists. During his reign, the privileged "financial aristocracy", such as bankers and landowners, tended to support him while workers and the industrial section of the bourgeoisie were regarded with disfavour by him. Workers actually tended to side with the middle class and working class in opposition to Louis Philippe in the Chamber of Deputies. Naturally, land ownership was favoured, and this elitism resulted in the disenfranchisement of much of the middle and working classes. Only about one percent of the population held the franchise by 1848. Even though France had a free press and trial by jury, only landholders were permitted to vote, which alienated the bourgeoisie from the government. 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 Orléanist liberals had turned against Louis Philippe, disappointed by his opposition to parliamentarism. A reform movement developed in France which urged the government to expand the electoral franchise. In July 1847, the Reformists of all shades began to express their hopes for a French republic. Louis Philippe turned a deaf ear to the demands of the movement for "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," and discontent among wide sections of the French people continued to grow. Social and political discontent sparked the revolution in France in 1830 and also in 1848. Workers lost their jobs, bread prices rose, and people accused the government of corruption. The French middle-class rage volcano had already erupted (Hobsbawm, 1962) (1).

Painting of the Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot on 24 June 1848 by Horace Vernet  (1789–1863).
Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot on 24 June 1848 (2).

The Blazing February

In the previous year 1847, political gatherings and demonstrations were outlawed in France. Because of that, the middle-class opposition to the government began to hold a series of fund-raising banquets. This campaign of banquets was intended to circumvent the governmental restriction on political meetings and provide a legal outlet for popular criticism of the regime. The supporters of the campaign, and the revolutionaries later, were demanding a drastic reduction of taxes, greater social benefits, and abolition of private property. The campaign lasted until all political banquets were outlawed by the French government in February 1848. Τhis government measure was the straw that broke the camel's back. People revolted and helped the efforts of the popular Republicans and the liberal Orléanists, who turned their back on Louis-Philippe, to be united. Anger over the outlawing of the political banquets brought crowds of Parisians flooding out onto the streets on 22 February 1848. They directed their anger against King Louis Philippe. They erected barricades in the streets of Paris and fighting broke out between the citizens and the Parisian municipal guards. The next day, 23 February, a large crowd gathered outside of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Probably by mistake, the soldiers fired into the crowd and many people were killed. As a result, Paris was soon a barricaded city. Fires were set, and angry citizens began converging on the royal palace. Louis-Philippe, fearing for his life, abdicated on 24 February and fled to England in disguise like his predecessor (Berstein & Milza, 1992) (2).

The barricade the French citizens made during the French Revolution of 1848.
The barricade the French citizens made during the French Revolution of 1848 (3).

The French Second Republic

On the same day, the liberal opposition came together to organize a provisional government, called the Second Republic. The poet Alphonse de Lamartine was appointed president of the provisional government. Lamartine served as a virtual dictator of France for the next three months. Elections for a Constituent Assembly were scheduled for 23 April 1848. The Constituent Assembly was to establish a new republican government for France. In preparation for these elections, two major goals of the provisional government were universal suffrage and unemployment relief. Universal male suffrage was enacted on 2 March 1848, giving France nine million new voters. As in all other European nations, women did not have the right to vote. Relief for the unemployed was achieved by the provisional government through the enactment of the National Workshops, which guaranteed French citizens' "right to work." By May 1848, the National Workshops were proven effective, as 100,000 workers were employed. However, unemployment remained at extremely high levels. In 1848, 479 newspapers were founded alongside a 54% decline in the number of businesses in Paris, as most wealth had fled the city. There was a corresponding decline in the luxury trade and credit became expensive. The emergence of these economic and social problems and the failure of the government to address them was the beginning of the conservatism of the Second French Republic, and also the beginning of the loss of its libertarian character (Lindemann, 2012) (3).


Conclusion

Despite the rapid decline of the Second French Republic and its overthrow at the end of 1851 by Louis Napoleon, the French Revolution of February 1848 was in all respects successful. Militarily speaking, the revolutionaries prevailed, Louis Philippe resigned, the middle and working classes gained privileges, and the French people gained many rights, such as the extended right to vote for men and the right to work. The inter-revolutionary conflicts of the summer of 1848, called the June Days, were the result of the corruption of the French government and its failure to address the diminishing problems of French society. Even Louis Napoleon, who was initially elected president of the French Republic but later founded the second French Empire with the emperor himself, tried to maintain and establish the revolutionary reforms. Finally, the French Revolution of 1848 encouraged to many other peoples of Europe to revolt immediately, as will be seen later in this 101 series.


Image Sources

  1. Philippoteaux, F. H. E. (19th century). Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris rejects the red flag on 25 February 1848 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.parismuseescollections.paris.fr/en/node/402424#infos-principales

  2. Vernet, H. (19th century). Battle at Soufflot barricades at Rue Soufflot on 24 June 1848 [Painting]. Retrieved from: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/bestand/objekt/k1000001

  3. The barricade the French citizens made during the French Revolution of 1848 [Illustration]. Retrieved from: https://www.quora.com/Why-werent-the-Revolutions-of-1830-and-1848-successful

References

  1. Hobsbawm, E. (1962). The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. pp. 163-193.

  2. Berstein S. & Milza P. (1992). The History of Europe: 1815-1919. Hatier, Paris. pp. 49-57.

  3. Lindemann, A. (2012). A History of Modern Europe: From 1815 to the Present. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 139-143.

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Miltos Spiratos

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