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Les Miserables and France's many revolutions

Overview of early 19th century French history and context for Les Miserables. Created by Sal Khan.

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  • purple pi purple style avatar for user mkim20
    Why are those in power often greedy?
    (55 votes)
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    • leaf red style avatar for user John
      "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." --Lord Acton.
      It's easy to be greedy with all the power, you could have anything you want--so some of them said: "Why not?"
      (144 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Alyssa Kaylee Derrick
    Did the establishment of America (and what is now Canada) have anything to do with the start of the French revolution?
    (72 votes)
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  • old spice man green style avatar for user Pedro F
    Books and movies say Napoleon Bonaparte declares himself emperor, but how he he just "declare" himself emperor? What allowed him to name himself emperor?
    (35 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Bartosz Paszcza
      In a way, it was not a meanless title. By declaring himself an emperor, he retorded the country from the French Revolution.
      Because the Revolution was bloody and very dangerous time to french citizens, going back to monarchy was thought to bring back the stability and safety of "old times", while maintaining most of its liberal benefits.
      (7 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Jada
    During the whole video, what exactly was the French revolution? What did they revolt against?
    (6 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user TheSupremeOverLord
      The French Revolution was a violent liberal movement against the conservative French monarchy. Its aims evolved over a decade. At first the revolutionaries attempted to form a constitutional monarchy. Later the monarch was tried and executed and a republic was formed. The revolutionary's skepticism that a single person could run the government effectively without giving in to the temptations of corruption was their undoing. They founded governments without executive branches, but this did not prevent radicalism. Maximilien Robespierre was a radical liberal who sought to abolish not only the nobility, but all trappings of monarchical France including the Catholic church. His radicalism led to the execution of even moderate liberals like Georges Danton and this led to his own demise.

      Napoleon Bonaparte filled the power vacuum of an executive branch. He was a popular military commander who won battles in Italy and Egypt. He led a military coup against the French government and installed himself as a dictator. At first he reconciled with the Catholic church and foreign nations that opposed the French Revolutionaries. But then he, himself, gave in to the trappings of monarchy and declared himself a hereditary emperor. He attempted to conquer all of Europe, but failed. Eventually he was defeated and exiled. The borders of France reverted back to their revolutionary boundaries.
      (25 votes)
  • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user Mayank Dhyani
    Was French Revolution like American Revolution?
    (6 votes)
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    • male robot hal style avatar for user Rudain75
      This question has been asked by a lot of people over time and I am sure one could find a lot of similarities and differences. I will toss down a few though.

      Similarities: Both seemed to have their roots in economic problems. The American colonist wanted more representation and fewer taxes. The French were suffering a pretty heavy burden from the near constant war in Europe. Both of these led to economic problems that led to conflict.

      Differences: The American Revolution as far less bloody than the French. The French revolution had to find a way to deal with its nobility and this lead to quite a few executions and several attempts by the nobility to maintain power using violence. The American Revolution didn't really have an official nobility. They had a wealthy and educated elite that in some ways acted like a nobility, but they lacked the official government approval of their status as nobles.

      More comparisons could be made but that would be the topic for an entire research paper and it is something that you should consider doing here.
      (21 votes)
  • male robot hal style avatar for user Stefan Spiekerman vW
    At , Sal says;'Facing your Waterloo'. I'm not a native English speaker, so can anyone explain this sentence some more? I like to learn new stuff :)
    (4 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Daryl Norton
    During this time there was a new calendar created that referenced the Revolution or Republic depending on the source. It consisted of of a 30 day month with a leap year and it had 10 hour days, 100 minute hours and 100 second minutes. ( This was the metric version of the calendar.) How did this complicate the timing of wars and religious services during this time and site any specific challenges?
    (3 votes)
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    • female robot grace style avatar for user 00015651
      It completely disregarded the catholic calendar that previously existed and did not involve any religious days. Religion was in the decline. The working-class suffered because they worked longer. Neglecting religion as a whole hampered them because the Catholic church was the only charity organization in existence.
      (7 votes)
  • male robot donald style avatar for user Sudhanva Shetty
    If Napoleon supported the French Revolution, why did he proclaim himself Emperor of France? Didn't it effectively reinstall monarchy?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Sid
      His ego was huge, and after beating the major powers of Europe several times, he felt better to boost his ego by calling himself the Emperor of France.

      In some ways, yes. The people of France were happy as they were getting food and wealth from his huge empire of France. Napoleon masked his own purposes, saying that he was doing all this for France. He was partially, but he also wanted to be known throughout history as "Napoleon the Great".
      (6 votes)
  • male robot johnny style avatar for user Raj
    French money, soldiers and naval forces proved essential to US's victory over the Britain (Monarchy), but what did France gain besides what I learn from these videos huge debt which led to French revolution? Did France expect help from US in their revolution and did US provide them help?
    (4 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Tahsin
    How did Louis the 17th died in prison?
    (2 votes)
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    • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Brooke Baird
      Louis XVII may have died from Tuberculosis, but the French 'Revlutionists' essentially starved him, from my reading. There was also rumors that young Louis went mad-he was a spoiled child, that was much loved by his mother, Marie Antoinette, and without anything, locked up in a tower, alone, he couldn't mentally hold himself together. Then again, the first French Revolution had many mysteries that surrounded it that we still may never uncover.
      (4 votes)

Video transcript

There's a very popular, and I thought, good movie out, based on the play, which is based on the novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables. And I'm sure I'm mispronouncing it. It means "the miserable," for those for whom it was not obvious. And what I want to give is a little bit of context because in that book, play, movie there is an attempted revolution. And sometimes people try to associate it with the French Revolution. But that is not depicting the French Revolution that people talk about when they talk about the French Revolution. And so I thought I would give a little bit of scaffold of French history in the late 1700s and all the way through the mid-1800s to give a little bit of context on the matter. So let's start off in 1789. That's when you have the French Revolution. The First French Revolution, we could say, or the French Revolution, which is the French Revolution that people talk about when they're talking about the French Revolution. It was all about deposing Louis XVI and his wife, Maria Antoinette. This is her body there. I think she just got guillotined. This is her head. It was very bloody revolution. This is the storming of the Bastille right over here. And that starts the beginning of the First Republic in France. The First Republic. So there were all these dreams and aspirations that France would now be a country of the people. Not too dissimilar to the United States. But revolutions are not so easy, or so clean, or so fast. And France had to go through a long period of pain before it could really establish itself as a real republic. But let's keep going on further off in history. Let me do that in a different color. I'll do the timeline in white. So let's fast forward. Let's fast forward to 1799. This is when Napoleon Bonaparte comes to power. So when people talk about Napoleon, they are talking about Napoleon Bonaparte. We'll see that there are other Napoleons. But if people just say, hey, Napoleon did this or that, they're talking about Napoleon Bonaparte. So this is, Napoleon comes to power. Napoleon. And he officially ends the First Republic in 1804 because he declares himself emperor. But let's fast forward. There's many videos on the Khan Academy dealing with the Napoleonic Wars and the French Revolution. But let's fast forward to 1815. So let me do that in white again. So you get to 1815. So let's see. That was about 10 years. I need to go about 16 years. So that would put us at 1815 right over there. 1815 is, essentially, Napoleon faces his Waterloo, which was literally at Waterloo. That's why people talk about facing your Waterloo. So he was banished for a little bit to Elba. He was able to come back. He had 100, actually 111 days in power. But then he was finally defeated. And then he was finally put into exile at Saint Helena, where he died. In 1815, you essentially have the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. So Louis XVI's younger brother comes to power. And they call him Louis XVIII. So this is Louis XVIII, which raises a very good question-- What happened to Louis XVII? Louis XVII was Louis XVI's son, who died in prison at the age of 10 in 1795 during the Revolution or during the revolutionary period, I guess we could say. So this right over here. This right over here. Napoleon ends -- let me draw. This is Napoleon's-- let me do this in the same color I did Napoleon in. So 1799 to, actually, 1814 is when Napoleon's reign ended but then he came back for a little bit. So I'll draw a little bit of a dotted line here. A little dotted line. And then 1814 was the formal restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. And, but of course, Napoleon comes back a little bit. But after Waterloo, it's really firmly established. So you have the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. So this is Louis the XVIII. And then in 1824 he dies. And he dies childless. 1824. So let's see. It's about nine years. So that will put us about right over there. 1824. He dies childless. And so his younger brother, Charles X comes to power. So then you have Charles X. Charles. I'll do all the Bourbons in purple. Charles X. And this is Charles X right over here. And so let's go a little bit further off into history. You fast forward all the way to 1830. You fast forward to 1830. A lot of discontent. And now you have the Second French Revolution. You might say, oh hey, this must be what Les Miserables is all about. No, we're not there yet. Les Mis is not about the Second French Revolution, sometimes called the July Revolution. July Revolution. And this revolution actually did not-- it was successful-- but it did not establish a republic at this point. It instead installed-- and this whole time there was a liberalization. The monarchy, even when it was put in power, had a gradual decline in how much power it had. But after the July Revolution, they put in Charles X's cousin. Charles X's cousin who was the Duke of Orleans. Who was this guy, this guy right over here. Louis Philippe I. So let me write that. So this is Louis Philippe I. And so you're saying, Sal, you started off this video talking about Les Mis. You haven't mentioned Les Mis yet. Give me a little bit of context. So now I will give you context. So if you watch the movie, it starts off with Jean Valjean. He's at a shipping place where they're repairing ships of some sort. That was in 1815 after Waterloo. So it was under Louis XVIII's regime. So that's right over here. Let me see where the start of the movie. The start of the movie is right about there. And then the real climax of the movie, which is this rebellion. There's these barricades being set up in Paris. You have all these young idealistic folks who are trying to overthrow the government. This does not happen until 1832. This is 1832. I'll do it right over here. 1832. And what catalyzed that-- there were several things that was catalyzing that. And, actually, most revolutions are catalyzed by just economic discontent. If people are rich, and happy, and have jobs, and aren't getting sick, most people aren't in the mood to revolt. But in 1832, as you could imagine, the economic situation was not good. There was also a very nasty outbreak of cholera. And what really catalyzed the events in Les Mis, and they even refer to it in the movie, is the death of this chap right over here. Jean Maximilien Lamarque. Let me write the name down. Jean Maximilien-- and I'm sure I'm mispronouncing it-- Lamarque. And he dies in June of 1832. And he was very sympathetic to the plight of the poor, to the plight of the common man. And the average folks said, hey look, he's our guy in government. And he had an influential role in government. When he died, they were like, look, we don't have anybody else in a high position who can speak for us. Let's use his funeral as a catalyst for revolt. And you saw that happening in the movie Les Mis. So Les Mis, that climactic moment, that is the June Rebellion of 1832. And it's not-- you don't have to have amazing comprehension of watching movies to realize that this was unsuccessful. So this right here, didn't work. Didn't work. If it did work, It might have been called the Third French Revolution. But it was not. It was an unsuccessful revolution or unsuccessful rebellion, really. And it was that Victor Hugo observed it. And that's why he's able to recount it in so much detail. The barricading, the young people, the shooting in the streets, all the rest. So this is a little bit of review. When people talk about the French Revolution, they're usually talking about the French Revolution. 1789. Begins to establish the First Republic. It was a successful revolution. The Second French Revolution. This is the July Revolution. This is in 1830. This puts into power Louis Philippe I, the person that they're trying to overthrow in Les Mis. And they don't establish the Second Republic after this. For the Second Republic, we have to go all the way to the revolution of-- let me make sure I can scroll properly. Go all the way. So let me continue my timeline. So this is Louis Philippe to go 18 years. 18 years to 1848 where you have the Third French Revolution, which leads to the popular election of Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew. Napoleon Bonaparte's nephew. Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. This guy right over here. But France is still not done. It still can't establish itself as a long-lasting republic. In 1851, this character declares himself emperor. So 1851, he too declares himself emperor. And France is not finally freed of kings and emperors until 1870. So let's do this run all the way to 1870 where France, essentially, loses the Franco-Prussian War. And this character, this character right over here, is deposed. And you have the establishment of the Third French Republic.