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The French Revolution

The storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Other names Reign of Terror; French Revolutionary War
Participants French society
Location France
Date 17891799
Result Abolition and replacement of the French monarchy with a radical democratic republic. Radical social change to forms based on Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.

Armed conflicts with other European countries

Napoleon Bonaparte takes power.
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The French Revolution (1789–1799) was a period of radical social and political upheaval in French and European history. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years. French society underwent an epic transformation as feudal, aristocratic, and religious privileges evaporated under a sustained assault from liberal political groups and the masses on the streets. Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights.

The French Revolution began in 1789 with the convocation of the Estates-General in May. The first year of the Revolution witnessed members of the Third Estate proclaiming the Tennis Court Oath in June, the assault on the Bastille in July, the passage of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in August, and an epic march on Versailles that forced the royal court back to Paris in October. The next few years were dominated by tensions between a liberal legislature and a conservative monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. A republic was proclaimed in September 1792 and King Louis XVI was executed the next year. External threats also played a dominant role in the development of the Revolution. The French Revolutionary Wars started in 1792 and ultimately featured spectacular French victories that facilitated the conquest of the Italian peninsula, the Low Countries, and most territories west of the Rhine—achievements that had defied previous French governments for centuries. Internally, popular sentiments radicalized the Revolution significantly, culminating in the brutal Reign of Terror from 1793 until 1794. After the fall of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795 and held power until 1799, when it was replaced by the Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte.

The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution. The growth of republics and liberal democracies, the spread of secularism, the development of modern ideologies, and the invention of total war all mark their birth during the Revolution. Subsequent events that can be traced to the Revolution include the Napoleonic Wars, two separate restorations of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape. In the following century, France would be governed at one point or another as a republic, constitutional monarchy, and two different empires.



History of France
Celtic Gaul
Roman Gaul
Middle Ages
Early Modern France
Revolution to WWI
French Revolution
National Assembly
Storming of the Bastille
National Constituent
(1, 2, 3)
Legislative Assembly
and fall of the monarchy
National Convention
and Reign of Terror
War in the Vendée
Related: Glossary,
Timeline, Wars,
List of people,
First Empire
July Monarchy
Second Republic
Second Empire
Third Republic
Fourth Republic
Modern France

Adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the Ancien Régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included widespread famine and malnutrition, due to rising bread prices (from a normal 8 sous for a 4-pound loaf to 12 sous by the end of 1789),[1] which increased the likelihood of disease and death, and intentional starvation in the most destitute segments of the population in the months immediately before the Revolution. The famine extended even to other parts of Europe, and was not helped by a poor transportation infrastructure for bulk foods.

Another cause was France's near bankruptcy as a result of the many wars fought by Louis XV and in particular the financial strain caused by French participation in the American Revolutionary War. The national debt amounted to almost two billion livres. The social burdens caused by war included the huge war debt, made worse by the monarchy's military failures and ineptitude, and the lack of social services for war veterans. The inefficient and antiquated financial system was unable to manage the national debt, something which was both caused and exacerbated by the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation. Meanwhile the conspicuous consumption of the noble class, especially the court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette at Versailles continued despite the financial burden on the populace. High unemployment and high bread prices caused more money to be spent on food and less in other areas of the economy. The Roman Catholic Church, the largest landowner in the country, levied a tax on crops known as the dîme or tithe. While the dîme lessened the severity of the monarchy's tax increases, it worsened the plight of the poorest who faced a daily struggle with malnutrition. Internal customs barriers caused serious problems for internal trade[2], as well as periodic grain shortages.

There were also social and political factors, many of which involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by the ambitious professional and mercantile classes towards noble privileges and dominance in public life, as many of these classes were familiar with the lives of their peers in commercial cities in the Netherlands and Great Britain; resentment by peasants, wage-earners, and the bourgeoisie toward the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by nobles; resentment of clerical advantage (anti-clericalism) and aspirations for freedom of religion, resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy, continued hatred for Catholic control, and influence on institutions of all kinds by the large Protestant minorities; aspirations for liberty and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism; and anger toward the King for firing Jacques Necker and A.R.J. Turgot (among other financial advisors), who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.[3]


Financial crisis

Louis XVI ascended to the throne amidst a financial crisis; the nation was nearing bankruptcy and outlays outpaced income.[4] This was because of France’s involvement in the Seven Years War and its participation in the American Revolutionary War.[5] In May 1776, finance minister Turgot was dismissed, after he lost favor. The next year, Jacques Necker, a foreigner, was appointed Director-General of Finance. He was not made a minister because he was a Protestant, and could not become a naturalized French citizen.[6] Necker realized that the country's tax system subjected some to an unfair burden;[6] numerous exemptions existed for the nobility and clergy.[7] He argued that the country could not be taxed higher, that tax exemptions for the nobility and clergy should be removed, and proposed that borrowing would solve the country's fiscal problems. Necker published a report to support this claim that underestimated the deficit by roughly 36,000 livres; and proposed restricting the spending power of the parlements. This was not received well by the King's ministers and Necker, hoping to solidify his position, argued to be accepted as a minister. The King refused, Necker was fired, and Charles Alexandre de Calonne was appointed to the Directorship.[6] Calonne initially spent liberally, but he quickly realized the critical financial situation and put forth a new tax code.[8] The proposal included a consistent land tax, which would include taxation of the nobility and clergy, and the meeting of the Estates was planned for May 1789; a signal that the Bourbon monarchy was no longer absolute.[9]

Estates-General of 1789

The Estates-General was organized into three estates, respectively: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France.[10] On the last occasion that the Estates-General had met, in 1614, each estate held one vote, and any two could override the third. The Parlement of Paris feared the government would attempt to gerrymander an assembly to rig the results. Thus, they required that the Estates be arranged as in 1614.[11] The 1614 rules differed from practices of local assemblies, wherein each member had one vote and third estate membership was doubled. For instance, in the province of Dauphiné the provincial assembly agreed to double the number of members of the third estate, hold membership elections, and allow one vote per member, rather than one vote per estate.[12] The "Committee of Thirty", a body of liberal Parisians, began to agitate against voting by estate. This group, largely composed of the wealthy, argued for the Estates-General to assume the voting mechanisms of Dauphiné. They argued that ancient precedent was not sufficient, because "the people were sovereign".[13] Necker convened a Second Assembly of the Notables, which rejected the notion of double representation by a vote of 111 to 333.[13] The King, however, agreed to the proposition on 27 December; but he left discussion of the weight of each vote to the Estates-General itself.[14]

Elections were held in the spring of 1789; suffrage requirements for the Third Estate were for French-born or naturalised males only, at least 25 years of age, who resided where the vote was to take place and who paid taxes.

Pour être électeur du tiers état, il faut avoir 25 ans, être français ou naturalisé, être domicilié au lieu de vote et compris au rôle des impositions.


Strong turnout produced 1,201 delegates, including: "291 nobles, 300 clergy, and 610 members of the Third Estate."[14] To lead delegates, "Books of grievances" (cahiers de doléances) were compiled to list problems.[10] The books articulated ideas which would have seemed radical only months before; however, most supported the monarchical system in general. Many assumed the Estates-General would approve future taxes, and Enlightenment ideals were relatively rare.[11][16] Pamphlets by liberal nobles and clergy became widespread after the lifting of press censorship.[13] The Abbé Sieyès, argued the importance of the Third Estate in the pamphlet Qu'est-ce que le tiers état? (What is the Third Estate?), published in January 1789. He asserted: "What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something."[11][17]

The Estates-General convened in Versailles on 5 May 1789 and opened with a three hour speech by Necker. The basic strategy of the Third Estate was to make sure that no decisions of the Estates-General should be reached in separate chambers, but instead should be made by all deputies from all three estates together (in other words, the strategy was to merge all three estates into one assembly). Thus they demanded that the verification of deputies' credentials should be undertaken in common by all deputies, rather than each estate verifying the credentials of its own members internally; but negotiations with the other estates failed to achieve this.[16] The commoners appealed to the clergy who replied they required more time. Necker asserted that each estate verify credentials and "the king was to act as arbitrator".[18] Negotiations with the other two estates to achieve this, however, were unsuccessful.[19]

National Assembly (1789)

Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath

On 10 June 1789 Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes (English: "Commons"), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. They proceeded to do so two days later, completing the process on 17 June.[20] Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People." They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them.[21]

In an attempt to keep control of the process and prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the closure of the Salle des États where the Assembly met, making an excuse that the carpenters needed to prepare the hall for a royal speech in two days. Weather did not allow an outdoor meeting, so the Assembly moved their deliberations to a nearby indoor real tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did 47 members of the nobility. By 27 June, the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities.[22]

National Constituent Assembly (1789–1791)

Storming of the Bastille

By this time, Necker had earned the enmity of many members of the French court for his support and guidance to the Third Estate. Marie Antoinette, the King's younger brother the Comte d'Artois, and other conservative members of the King's privy council urged him to dismiss Necker from his role as King's financial advisor. On 11 July 1789, after Necker suggested that the royal family live according to a budget to conserve funds, the King fired him, and completely reconstructed the finance ministry at the same time.[23]

Early depiction of the tricolour in the hands of a sans-culotte during the French Revolution

Many Parisians presumed Louis's actions to be the start of a royal coup against the Assembly and began open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. They were also afraid that arriving soldiers—mostly foreigners under French service rather than native French troops—had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly. The Assembly, meeting at Versailles, went into nonstop session to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris was soon consumed with riots, chaos, and widespread looting. The mobs soon had the support of the French Guard, including arms and trained soldiers.[24]

On 14 July, the insurgents set their eyes on the large weapons and ammunition cache inside the Bastille fortress, which was also perceived to be a symbol of monarchist tyranny. After several hours of combat, the prison fell that afternoon. Despite ordering a cease fire, which prevented a mutual massacre, Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay was beaten, stabbed and decapitated; his head was placed on a pike and paraded about the city. Although the fortress had held only seven prisoners (four forgers, two noblemen kept for immoral behavior, and a murder suspect), the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the Ancien Régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery and he was shot.[25]

The King and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. La Fayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, president of the Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath, became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The King visited Paris, where, on 17 July he accepted a tricolore cockade, to cries of Vive la Nation [Long live the Nation] and Vive le Roi [Long live the King].[26]

Necker was recalled to power, but his triumph was short-lived. An astute financier but a less astute politician, Necker overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people's favour. He also felt he could save France all by himself, despite having few ideas.[citation needed]

Nobles were not assured by this apparent reconciliation of King and people. They began to flee the country as émigrés, some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.[citation needed]

By late July, insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux, as part of a general agrarian insurrection known as "la Grande Peur" (the Great Fear). In addition, plotting at Versailles and the large numbers of men on the roads of France as a result of unemployment led to wild rumours and paranoia (particularly in the rural areas) that caused widespread unrest and civil disturbances and contributed to the Great Fear.[27]

Working toward a constitution

On 4 August 1789 the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism (although at that point there had been sufficient peasant revolts to almost end feudalism already), in what is known as the August Decrees, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.

Looking to the Declaration of Independence of the United States for a model, on 26 August 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. The National Constituent Assembly functioned not only as a legislature, but also as a body to draft a new constitution.

Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the crown on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. The King retained only a "suspensive veto"; he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely. The Assembly eventually replaced the historic provinces with 83 départements, uniformly administered and roughly equal in area and population.

Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, by late 1789, the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Honoré Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, and the Assembly gave Necker complete financial dictatorship.

Women's March on Versailles

Engraving of the Women's March on Versailles, 5 October 1789

Fueled by rumors of a reception for the King's bodyguards on 1 October 1789 at which the national cockade had been trampled upon, on 5 October 1789 crowds of women began to assemble at Parisian markets. The women first marched to the Hôtel de Ville, demanding that city officials address their concerns.[28] The women were responding to the harsh economic situations they faced, especially bread shortages. They also demanded an end to royal efforts to block the National Assembly, and for the King and his administration to move to Paris as a sign of good faith in addressing the widespread poverty.

Getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, as many as 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them cannons and a variety of smaller weapons. Twenty thousand National Guardsmen under the command of La Fayette responded to keep order, and members of the mob stormed the palace, killing several guards.[29] La Fayette ultimately convinced the king to accede to the demand of the crowd that the monarchy relocate to Paris.

On 6 October 1789, the King and the royal family moved from Versailles to Paris under the protection of the National Guards, thus legitimizing the National Assembly.

Revolution and the Church

In this caricature, monks and nuns enjoy their new freedom after the decree of 16 February 1790

The Revolution brought about a massive shifting of powers from the Roman Catholic Church to the state. Under the Ancien Régime, the Church had been the largest single landowner in the country, owning about 10 percent of the land in the kingdom.[30] The Church was exempt from paying taxes to the government, however it levied a tithe - a 10% tax on income, often collected in the form of crops - on the general population.[30] The power and wealth of the Church was highly resented. Non-Catholics and Protestants wanted an anti-Catholic regime and revenge against the clergy in power. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire helped fuel this resentment by denigrating the Catholic Church and destabilizing the French monarchy.[31] As historian John McManners argues, “In eighteenth-century France throne and altar were commonly spoken of as in close alliance; their simultaneous collapse … would one day provide the final proof of their interdependence.”[32]

This resentment toward the Church weakened its power during the opening of the Estates General in May of 1789. The Church composed the First Estate with 130,000 members of the clergy. When the National Assembly was later created in June 1789 by the Third Estate, the clergy voted to join them, which perpetuated the destruction of the Estates General as a governing body.[33] The National Assembly began to enact social and economic reform. Legislation sanctioned on 4 August 1789 abolished the Church's authority to impose the tithe. In an attempt to address the financial crisis, the Assembly declared, on 2 November 1789, that the property of the Church was “at the disposal of the nation.”[34] They used this property to back a new currency, the assignats. However, the nation had now taken on the responsibility of the Church, which included paying the clergy, caring for the poor the sick and the orphaned.[35] In December, the Assembly began to sell the lands to the highest bidder to raise revenue, effectively decreasing the value of the assignats by 25 percent in two years.[36] In autumn of 1789, legislation abolished monastic vows and on 13 February 1790 all religious orders were dissolved.[37] Monks and nuns were encouraged to return to private life and 10 percent eventually married.[38]

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on 12 July 1790, turned the remaining clergy into employees of the state. This established an election system for parish priests and bishops and set a pay rate for the clergy. Many Catholics objected to the election system because non-Catholics could participate in the election of their priests and bishops. Eventually, in November 1790, the National Assembly began to require an oath of loyalty to the Civil Constitution from all the members of the clergy.[38] This led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement and those who refused to do so. Overall 54 percent of the clergy nationwide took the oath.[39] Widespread refusal led to legislation against the clergy, “forcing them into exile, deporting them forcibly, or executing them as traitors.”[36] Pope Pius VI never accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, further isolating the Church in France. During the Reign of Terror, extreme efforts of de-Christianization ensued, including the imprisonment and massacre of priests and destruction of churches and religious images throughout France. An effort was made to replace the Catholic Church altogether, with civic festivals replacing religious ones. The establishment of the cult of Reason was the final step of radical de-Christianization. However, locals often resisted these efforts and even Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety eventually denounced this campaign.[40] The Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon and the Church ended the de-Christianization period and established the rules for a relationship between the Catholic Church and the French State that lasted until it was abrogated by the Third Republic via the separation of church and state on 11 December 1905.

Intrigues and radicalism

Satirical cartoon lampooning the excesses of the Revolution as seen from England

Factions within the Assembly began to clarify. The aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury led what would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution (this party sat on the right-hand side of the Assembly). The "Royalist democrats" or monarchiens, allied with Necker, inclined toward organising France along lines similar to the British constitutional model; they included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, comte de Virieu.

The "National Party", representing the centre or centre-left of the assembly, included Honoré Mirabeau, La Fayette, and Bailly; while Adrien Duport, Barnave and Alexandre Lameth represented somewhat more extreme views. Almost alone in his radicalism on the left was the Arras lawyer Maximilien Robespierre. Abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political centre and the left. In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under La Fayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.

The Assembly abolished the symbolic paraphernalia of the Ancien Régime—armorial bearings, liveries, etc.—which further alienated the more conservative nobles, and added to the ranks of the émigrés. On 14 July 1790, and for several days following, crowds in the Champ de Mars celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille with the Fête de la Fédération; Talleyrand performed a mass; participants swore an oath of "fidelity to the nation, the law, and the king"; and the King and the royal family actively participated.[41]

The electors had originally chosen the members of the Estates-General to serve for a single year. However, by the terms of the Tennis Court Oath, the communes had bound themselves to meet continuously until France had a constitution. Right-wing elements now argued for a new election, but Mirabeau carried the day, asserting that the status of the assembly had fundamentally changed, and that no new election should take place before completing the constitution.[citation needed]

In late 1790, several small counter-revolutionary uprisings broke out and efforts took place to turn all or part of the army against the Revolution. These uniformly failed. The royal court "encouraged every anti-revolutionary enterprise and avowed none."[42]

The army faced considerable internal turmoil: General Bouillé successfully put down a small rebellion, which added to his (accurate) reputation for counter-revolutionary sympathies. The new military code, under which promotion depended on seniority and proven competence (rather than on nobility) alienated some of the existing officer corps, who joined the ranks of the émigrés or became counter-revolutionaries from within.[citation needed]

This period saw the rise of the political "clubs" in French politics, foremost among these the Jacobin Club; 152 clubs had affiliated with the Jacobins by 10 August 1790.[43] As the Jacobins became more of a broad popular organisation, some of its founders abandoned it to form the Club of '89. Royalists established first the short-lived Club des Impartiaux and later the Club Monarchique. The latter attempted unsuccessfully to curry public favour by distributing bread. Nonetheless, they became the frequent target of protests and even riots, and the Paris municipal authorities finally closed down the Club Monarchique in January 1791.[citation needed]

Amidst these intrigues, the Assembly continued to work on developing a constitution. A new judicial organisation made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The King would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war. The Assembly abolished all internal trade barriers and suppressed guilds, masterships, and workers' organisations: any individual gained the right to practice a trade through the purchase of a license; strikes became illegal.[44]

In the winter of 1791, the Assembly considered, for the first time, legislation against the émigrés. The debate pitted the safety of the State against the liberty of individuals to leave. Mirabeau carried the day against the measure, which he referred to as "worthy of being placed in the code of Draco".[42] But Mirabeau died on 2 April 1791 and, before the end of the year, the new Legislative Assembly would adopt this "draconian" measure.[45]

Royal flight to Varennes

The return of the royal family to Paris on 25 June 1791, colored copperplate after a drawing of Jean-Louis Prieur

Louis XVI, opposed to the course of the Revolution, but rejecting the potentially treacherous aid of the other monarchs of Europe, cast his lot with General Bouillé, who condemned both the emigration and the Assembly, and promised him refuge and support in his camp at Montmédy. On the night of 20 June 1791 the royal family fled the Tuileries Palace wearing the clothes of servants, while their servants dressed as nobles.

However, late the next day, the King was recognised and arrested at Varennes (in the Meuse département). He and his family were brought back to Paris under guard, still dressed as servants. Pétion, Latour-Maubourg, and Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, representing the Assembly, met the royal family at Épernay and returned with them. From this time, Barnave became a counselor and supporter of the royal family. When they reached Paris, the crowd remained silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the King. He and Queen Marie Antoinette remained held under guard.[46][47][48][49][50]

Completing the constitution

As most of the Assembly still favoured a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the various groups reached a compromise which left Louis XVI as little more than a figurehead: he had perforce to swear an oath to the constitution, and a decree declared that retracting the oath, heading an army for the purpose of making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would amount to de facto abdication.[citation needed]

Jacques Pierre Brissot drafted a petition, insisting that in the eyes of the nation Louis XVI was deposed since his flight. An immense crowd gathered in the Champ de Mars to sign the petition. Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins gave fiery speeches. The Assembly called for the municipal authorities to "preserve public order". The National Guard under La Fayette's command confronted the crowd. The soldiers responded to a barrage of stones by firing into the crowd, thus killing between thirteen and fifty people.[51]

In the wake of this massacre the authorities closed many of the patriotic clubs, as well as radical newspapers such as Jean-Paul Marat's L'Ami du Peuple. Danton fled to England; Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.[citation needed]

Meanwhile, a new threat arose from abroad: Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Frederick William II of Prussia, and the King's brother Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois, issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which considered the cause of Louis XVI as their own, demanded his absolute liberty and implied an invasion of France on his behalf if the revolutionary authorities refused its conditions.[52] The French people expressed no respect for the dictates of foreign monarchs, and the threat of force merely caused the militarisation of the frontiers.[citation needed]

Even before the "Flight to Varennes", the Assembly members had determined to debar themselves from the legislature that would succeed them, the Legislative Assembly. They now gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution, showed remarkable strength in choosing not to use this as an occasion for major revisions, and submitted it to the recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing "I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal". The King addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. The Assembly set the end of its term for 29 September 1791.[citation needed]

Mignet argued that the "constitution of 1791... was the work of the middle class, then the strongest; for, as is well known, the predominant force ever takes possession of institutions... In this constitution the people was the source of all powers, but it exercised none."[53]

Legislative Assembly (1791–1792)

Failure of the constitutional monarchy

Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy. The King had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly, but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers. The Legislative Assembly first met on 1 October 1791, and degenerated into chaos less than a year later. In the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica: "In the attempt to govern, the Assembly failed altogether. It left behind an empty treasury, an undisciplined army and navy, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot."[54] The Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) on the right, about 330 Girondists (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries) on the left, and about 250 deputies unaffiliated with either faction. Early on, the King vetoed legislation that threatened the émigrés with death and that decreed that every non-juring clergyman must take within eight days the civic oath mandated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Over the course of a year, such disagreements would lead to a constitutional crisis.[citation needed]

Constitutional crisis

10 August 1792 Paris Commune - The Storming of the Tuileries Palace

On the night of 10 August 1792, insurgents, supported by a new revolutionary Paris Commune, assailed the Tuileries. The royal family ended up prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy; little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins.

What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. The Commune sent gangs into the prisons to try arbitrarily and butcher 1400 victims, and addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example. The Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. This situation persisted until the Convention, charged with writing a new constitution, met on 20 September 1792 and became the new de facto government of France. The next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. This date was later retroactively adopted as the beginning of Year One of the French Republican Calendar.

War and Counter-Revolution (1792–1797)

The politics of the period inevitably drove France towards war with Austria and its allies. The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins specifically wanted to wage war. The King (and many Feuillants with him) expected war would increase his personal popularity; he also foresaw an opportunity to exploit any defeat: either result would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution throughout Europe and, by extension, to defend the Revolution within France. Only some of the radical Jacobins opposed war, preferring to consolidate and expand the Revolution at home. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette, may have wished to avoid war, but he died on 1 March 1792.[55] France declared war on Austria (20 April 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The invading Prussian army faced little resistance until checked at the Battle of Valmy (20 September 1792), and forced to withdraw. However, by this time, France stood in turmoil and the monarchy had effectively become a thing of the past.[citation needed]

National Convention (1792–1795)

Execution of Louis XVI

Execution of Louis XVI in what is now the Place de la Concorde, facing the empty pedestal where the statue of his grandfather, Louis XV, had stood.
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In the Brunswick Manifesto, the Imperial and Prussian armies threatened retaliation on the French population if it were to resist their advance or the reinstatement of the monarchy. This made Louis appear to be conspiring with the enemies of France. 17 January 1793 saw Louis condemned to death for "conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety" by a close majority in Convention: 361 voted to execute the king, 288 voted against, and another 72 voted to execute him subject to a variety of delaying conditions. The former Louis XVI, now simply named Citoyen Louis Capet (Citizen Louis Capet), was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793 on the Place de la Révolution, former Place Louis XV, now called the Place de la Concorde. After he was executed, some of the citizens who witnessed the beheading ran forth to have their clothes soaked in the late King's blood, dripping from his head.[56] Others in the crowd went mad, slit their throats or jumped into the river Seine[57] – according to historian Adam Zamoyski this was not so much due to their love for the King but as he was seen as a representative of God on earth. In his book The Rebel, Albert Camus wrote that the execution was the turning point of French contemporary history, "an act that secularized the French world and banished God from the subsequent history of the French people".[57] The 21 January execution led to more wars with other European countries. Louis' Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, would follow him to the guillotine on 16 October.[58]


When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes — poor labourers and radical Jacobins — rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup, backed up by force effected by mobilising public support against the Girondist faction, and by utilising the mob power of the Parisian sans-culottes. An alliance of Jacobin and sans-culottes elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. Policy became considerably more radical, as "The Law of the Maximum" set food prices and led to executions of offenders.[59] This policy of price control was coeval with the Committee of Public Safety's rise to power and the Reign of Terror. The Committee first attempted to set the price for only a limited number of grain products but, by September of 1793, it expanded the "maximum" to cover all foodstuffs and a long list of other goods.[60] Widespread shortages and famine ensued. The Committee reacted by sending dragoons into the countryside to arrest farmers and seize crops. This temporarily solved the problem in Paris, but the rest of the country suffered. By the spring of 1794, forced collection of food was not sufficient to feed even Paris and the days of the Committee were numbered. When Robespierre went to the guillotine in July of that year the crowd jeered, "There goes the dirty maximum!"[61]

Reign of Terror

The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer, and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793–1794). According to archival records, at least 16,594 people died under the guillotine or otherwise after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities.[62] A number of historians note that as many as 40,000 accused prisoners may have been summarily executed without trial or died awaiting trial.[62][63]

On 2 June 1793, Paris sections — encouraged by the enragés ("enraged ones") Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert — took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to "sans-culottes" alone.[64] With the backing of the National Guard, they managed to convince the Convention to arrest 31 Girondin leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on 10 June, installing the revolutionary dictatorship. On 13 July, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat — a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his bloodthirsty rhetoric — by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, resulted in further increase of Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the King, undermined by several political reversals, was removed from the Committee and Robespierre, "the Incorruptible", became its most influential member as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution's domestic and foreign enemies.[65]

Meanwhile, on 24 June, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, variously referred to as the French Constitution of 1793 or Constitution of the Year I. It was progressive and radical in several respects, in particular by establishing universal male suffrage. It was ratified by public referendum, but never applied, because normal legal processes were suspended before it could take effect.[66]

In Vendée, peasants revolted against the French Revolutionary government in 1793. They resented the changes imposed on the Roman Catholic Church by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and broke into open revolt in defiance of the Revolutionary government's military conscription.[67] This became a guerrilla war, known as the War in the Vendée.[68] North of the Loire, similar revolts were started by the so-called Chouans (royalist rebels).[citation needed]

After the defeat at Savenay, when regular warfare in the Vendée was at an end, the French general Francois Joseph Westermann penned a letter to the Committee of Public Safety stating

“There is no more Vendée. It died with its wives and its children by our free sabres. I have just buried it in the woods and the swamps of Savenay. According to the orders that you gave me, I crushed the children under the feet of the horses, massacred the women who, at least for these, will not give birth to any more brigands. I do not have a prisoner to reproach me. I have exterminated all. The roads are sown with corpses. At Savenay, brigands are arriving all the time claiming to surrender, and we are shooting them non-stop... Mercy is not a revolutionary sentiment."[69][70]

However, some historians doubt the existence of this document[71] and others point out that the claims in it were patently false - there were in fact thousands of (living) Vendean prisoners, the revolt had been far from crushed,[72] and the Convention had explicitly decreed that women, children and unarmed men were to be treated humanely.[73] It has been hypothesized that if the letter is authentic, that may have been Westermann's attempt to exaggerate the intensity of his actions and his success, because he was eager to avoid being purged for his incompetent military leadership and for his opposition to sans-culotte generals (he failed to avoid that, since he was guillotined together with Danton's group).[74]

The revolt and its suppression (including both combat casualties and massacres and executions on both sides) are thought to have taken between 117 000 and 250 000 lives (170 000 according to the latest estimates).[75] Because of the extremely brutal forms that the Republican repression took in many places, certain historians such as Reynald Secher have called the event a "genocide". This description has become popular in the mass media,[76] but it has attracted much criticism in academia as being unrealistic and biased.[77]

Facing local revolts and foreign invasions in both the East and West of the country, the most urgent government business was the war. On 17 August, the Convention voted for general conscription, the levée en masse, which mobilized all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war effort.

Guillotine: between 18,000 and 40,000 people were executed during the Reign of Terror

The result was a policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On 9 September, the Convention established sans-culottes paramilitary forces, the revolutionary armies, to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On 29 September, the Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other household goods and declared the right to set a limit on wages.[78]

The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions. Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Queen Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité (despite his vote for the death of the King), Madame Roland and many others were executed by guillotine. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death.

At the peak of the terror, the slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and trials did not always proceed according to contemporary standards of due process. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). In the rebellious provinces, the government representatives had unlimited authority and some engaged in extreme repressions and abuses. For example, Jean-Baptiste Carrier became notorious for the Noyades ["drownings"] - he organized in Nantes;[79] his conduct was judged unacceptable even by the Jacobin government and he was recalled.[citation needed]

Another anti-clerical uprising was made possible by the installment of the Republican Calendar on 24 October 1793. Against Robespierre's concepts of Deism and Virtue, Hébert's (and Chaumette's) atheist movement initiated a religious campaign to dechristianize society. The climax was reached with the celebration of the flame of Reason in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.[80]

The Reign of Terror enabled the revolutionary government to avoid military defeat. The Jacobins expanded the size of the army, and Carnot replaced many aristocratic officers with younger soldiers who had demonstrated their ability and patriotism. The Republican army was able to throw back the Austrians, Prussians, British, and Spanish. At the end of 1793, the army began to prevail and revolts were defeated with ease. The Ventôse Decrees (February–March 1794) proposed the confiscation of the goods of exiles and opponents of the Revolution, and their redistribution to the needy.[81]

In the spring of 1794, both extremist enragés such as Hébert and moderate Montagnard indulgents such as Danton were charged with counter-revolutionary activities, tried and guillotined. On 7 June Robespierre, who had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, advocated a new state religion and recommended the Convention acknowledge the existence of the "Supreme Being".[82]

Thermidorian Reaction

Engraving: "Closing of the Jacobin Club, during the night of 27–28 July 1794, or 9–10 Thermidor, year 2 of the Republic"

On 27 July 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. The new government was predominantly made up of Girondists who had survived the Terror, and after taking power, they took revenge as well by persecuting even those Jacobins who had helped to overthrow Robespierre, banning the Jacobin Club, and executing many of its former members in what was known as the White Terror.[citation needed]

In the wake of excesses of the Terror, the Convention approved the new "Constitution of the Year III" on 22 August 1795. A French plebiscite ratified the document, with about 1,057,000 votes for the constitution and 49,000 against.[83] The results of the voting were announced on 23 September 1795, and the new constitution took effect on 27 September 1795.[83]

Directory (1795–1799)

The new constitution created the Directoire (English: Directory) and the first bicameral legislature in French history.[84] The parliament consisted of 500 representatives — the Conseil des Cinq-Cents (Council of the Five Hundred) — and 250 senators — the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Elders). Executive power went to five "directors," named annually by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by the Conseil des Cinq-Cents.[citation needed] Furthermore, the universal suffrage of 1793 was replaced by limited suffrage based on property.[citation needed]

With the establishment of the Directory, contemporary observers might have assumed that the Revolution was finished. Citizens of the war-weary nation wanted stability, peace, and an end to conditions that at times bordered on chaos. Those who wished to restore the monarchy and the Ancien Régime by putting Louis XVIII on the throne, and those who would have renewed the Reign of Terror were insignificant in number. The possibility of foreign interference had vanished with the failure of the First Coalition. The earlier atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between parties impossible. The same instinct of self-preservation which had led the members of the Convention to claim so large a part in the new legislature and the whole of the Directory impelled them to keep their predominance.[citation needed]

As many French citizens distrusted the Directory,[85] the directors could achieve their purposes only by extraordinary means. They habitually disregarded the terms of the constitution, and, even when the elections that they rigged went against them,[86] the directors routinely used draconian police measures to quell dissent. Moreover, the Directory used war as the best expedient for prolonging their power, and the directors were thus driven to rely on the armies, which also desired war and grew less and less civic-minded.[citation needed]

Other reasons influenced them in this direction. State finances during the earlier phases of the Revolution had been so thoroughly ruined that the government could not have met its expenses without the plunder and the tribute of foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihood, as well as the ambition of generals who could, in a moment, brush them aside. Barras and Rewbell were notoriously corrupt themselves and screened corruption in others. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed, and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.[citation needed]

Napoléon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (detail of an oleo by François Bouchot)

The constitutional party in the legislature desired toleration of the nonjuring clergy, the repeal of the laws against the relatives of the émigrés, and some merciful discrimination toward the émigrés themselves. The directors baffled all such endeavours. On the other hand, the socialist conspiracy of Babeuf was easily quelled. Little was done to improve the finances, and the assignats continued to fall in value.[citation needed]

The new régime met opposition from remaining Jacobins and the royalists. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte eventually gained much power.

On 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon Bonaparte staged the coup of 18 Brumaire which installed the Consulate. This effectively led to Bonaparte's dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as Empereur (emperor), which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.[citation needed]

Role of women

Women had no political rights in pre-Revolutionary France; they couldn’t vote or hold any political office. They were considered “passive” citizens; forced to rely on men to determine what was best for them in the government. It was the men who defined these categories, and women were forced to accept male domination in the political sphere.[87] The Encyclopédie, published by a group of philosophes over the years 1751–1777, summarized French male beliefs of women. A woman was a “failed man,” the fetus not fully developed in the womb. “Women’s testimony is in general light and subject to variation; this is why it is taken more seriously than that of men” as opposed to men, upon whom “Nature seems to have conferred… the right to govern.” In general, “men are more capable than women of ably governing particular matters”.[88] Instead, women were taught to be committed to their husbands and “all his interests… [to show] attention and care… [and] sincere and discreet zeal for his salvation.” A woman’s education often consisted of learning to be a good wife and mother; as a result women were not supposed to be involved in the political sphere, as the limit of their influence was the raising of future citizens.[89]

When the Revolution opened, some women struck forcefully, using the volatile political climate to assert their active natures. In the time of the Revolution, women could not be kept out of the political sphere; they swore oaths of loyalty, “solemn declarations of patriotic allegiance, [and] affirmations of the political responsibilities of citizenship.” Throughout the Revolution, women such as Pauline Léon and her Society for Revolutionary Republican Women fought for the right to bear arms, used armed force and rioted.[90]

Feminist agitation

The March to Versailles is but one example of feminist militant activism during the French Revolution. While largely left out of the thrust for increasing rights of citizens, as the question was left indeterminate in the Declaration of the Rights of Man,[91] activists such as Pauline Léon and Théroigne de Méricourt agitated for full citizenship for women.[92] Women were, nonetheless, “denied political rights of ‘active citizenship’ (1791) and democratic citizenship (1793).”[91]

Pauline Léon, on March 6, 1792, submitted a petition signed by 319 women to the National Assembly requesting permission to form a garde national in order to defend Paris in case of military invasion.[92] Léon requested permission be granted to women to arm themselves with pikes, pistols, sabers and rifles, as well as the privilege of drilling under the French Guards. Her request was denied.[93] Later in 1792, Théroigne de Méricourt made a call for the creation of “legions of amazons” in order to protect the revolution. As part of her call, she claimed that the right to bear arm would transform women into citizens.[94]

On June 20 of 1792, a number of armed women took part in a procession that “passed through the halls of the Legislative Assembly, into the Tuilleries Gardens, and then through the King’s residence.”[95] Militant women also assumed a special role in the funeral of Marat, following his murder on July 13, 1793. As part of the funeral procession, they carried the bathtub in which Marat had been murdered as well as a shirt stained with Marat’s blood.[96]

The most radical militant feminist activism was practiced by the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women, which was founded by Léon and her colleague, Claire Lacombe on May 10, 1793.[97] The goal of the club was “to deliberate on the means of frustrating the projects of the enemies of the Republic.” Up to 180 women attended the meetings of the Society.[98] Of special interest to the Society was “combating hoarding [of grain and other staples] and inflation.”[99]

Later, on May 20, 1793, women were at the fore of a crowd that demanded “bread and the Constitution of 1793.”[100] When their cries went unnoticed, the women went on a rampage, “sacking shops, seizing grain and kidnapping officials.”[101]

Most of these outwardly activist women were punished for their actions. The kind of punishment received during the Revolution included public denouncement, arrest, execution, or exile. Théroigne de Méricourt was arrested, publicly flogged and then spent the rest of her life sentenced to an insane asylum. Pauline Léon and Claire Lacombe were arrested, later released, and continued to receive ridicule and abuse for their activism. Many of the women of the Revolution were even publicly executed for “conspiring against the unity and the indivisibility of the Republic”.[102]

These are but a few examples of the militant feminism that was prevalent during the French Revolution. While little progress was made toward gender equality during the Revolution, the activism of French feminists was bold and particularly significant in Paris.

Women writers

While some women chose a militant, and often violent, path, others chose to influence events through writing, publications, and meetings. Olympe de Gouges wrote a number of plays, short stories, and novels. Her publications emphasized that women and men are different, but this shouldn’t stop them from equality under the law. In her “Declaration on the Rights of Woman” she insisted that women deserved rights, especially in areas concerning them directly, such as divorce and recognition of illegitimate children. De Gouges also expressed non-gender political views; even before the start of the terror, Olympe de Gouges addressed Robespierre using the pseudonym “Polyme” calling him the Revolution’s “infamy and shame.” She warned of the Revolution’s building extremism saying that leaders were “preparing new shackles if [the French people’s liberty were to] waver.” Stating that she was willing to sacrifice herself by jumping into the Seine if Robespierre were to join her, de Gouges desperately attempted to grab the attention of the French citizenry and alert them to the dangers that Robespierre embodied.[103] In addition to these bold writings, her defense of the king was one of the factors leading to her execution. An influential figure, one of her suggestions early in the Revolution, to have a voluntary, patriotic tax, was adopted by the National Convention in 1789.[104]

Madame Roland (aka Manon or Marie Roland) was another important female activist. Her political focus was not specifically on women or their liberation. She focused on other aspects of the government, but was a feminist by virtue of the fact that she was a woman working to influence the world. Her personal letters to leaders of the Revolution influenced policy; in addition, she often hosted political gatherings of the Brissotins, a political group which allowed women to join. While limited by her gender, Madame Roland took it upon herself to spread Revolutionary ideology and spread word of events, as well as to assist in formulating the policies of her political allies. Though unable to directly write policies or carry them through to the government, Roland was able to influence her political allies and thus promote her political agenda. Roland attributed women’s lack of education to the public view that women were too weak or vain to be involved in the serious business of politics. She believed that it was this inferior education that turned them into foolish people, but women “could easily be concentrated and solidified upon objects of great significance” if given the chance.[105] As she was led to the scaffold, Madame Roland shouted “O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!” Witnesses of her life and death, editors, and readers helped to finish her writings and several editions were published posthumously. While she did not focus on gender politics in her writings, by taking an active role in the tumultuous time of the Revolution, Roland took a stand for women of the time and proved they could take an intelligent active role in politics.[106]

Though women did not gain the right to vote as a result of the Revolution, they still greatly expanded their political participation and involvement in governing. They set precedents for generations of feminists to come.


The French Revolution has received enormous amounts of historical attention, both from the general public and from scholars and academics. The views of historians, in particular, have been characterized as falling along ideological lines, with liberal, conservative, communist, and anarchist scholars—among others—disagreeing over the significance and the major developments of the Revolution.[107] Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the Revolution was a manifestation of a more prosperous middle class becoming conscious of its social importance.[108] Other thinkers, like the conservative Edmund Burke, maintained that the Revolution was the product of a few conspiratorial individuals who brainwashed the masses into subverting the old order—a claim rooted in the belief that the revolutionaries had no legitimate complaints.[109] Other historians, influenced by Marxist thinking, have emphasized the importance of the peasants and the urban workers in presenting the Revolution as a gigantic class struggle.[110] In general, scholarship on the French Revolution initially studied the political ideas and developments of the era, but it has gradually shifted towards social history that analyzes the impact of the Revolution on individual lives.[111]

Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history, and the end of the early modern period, which started around 1500, is traditionally attributed to the onset of the French Revolution in 1789.[112] The Revolution is, in fact, often seen as marking the "dawn of the modern era".[113] Within France itself, the Revolution permanently crippled the power of the aristocracy and drained the wealth of the Church, although the two institutions survived despite the damage they sustained. After the collapse of the First Empire in 1815, the French public lost the rights and privileges earned since the Revolution, but they remembered the participatory politics that characterized the period, with one historian commenting: "Thousands of men and even many women gained firsthand experience in the political arena: they talked, read, and listened in new ways; they voted; they joined new organizations; and they marched for their political goals. Revolution became a tradition, and republicanism an enduring option."[114] Some historians argue that the French people underwent a fundamental transformation in self-identity, evidenced by the elimination of privileges and their replacement by rights as well as the growing decline in social deference that highlighted the principle of equality throughout the Revolution.[115] Outside France, the Revolution captured the imagination of the world. It had a profound impact on the Russian Revolution and its ideas were imbibed by Mao Zedong in his efforts at constructing a communist state in China.[116]

See also

Related pages

Other revolutions or rebellions in French history


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  102. ^ Deviant Women by Beckstrand pg. 20
  103. ^ De Gouges “Writings” 564–568
  104. ^ Mousset “Women’s Rights” 49
  105. ^ Dalton “Madame Roland” 262–267
  106. ^ Walker “Virtue” 413–416
  107. ^ Rude p. 12-4
  108. ^ Ibid., p. 15
  109. ^ Ibid., p. 12
  110. ^ Ibid., p. 17
  111. ^ Ibid., p. 12-20
  112. ^ Frey, Foreword
  113. ^ Ibid., Preface
  114. ^ Hanson, p. 189
  115. ^ Ibid., 191
  116. ^ Ibid., 193

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain. This article makes use of the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814, by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.

Works cited

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Preceded by
The Old Regime
French Revolution
Succeeded by
First French Republic

Study guide

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

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Part of the Department of European History.

Just getting this topic started. --Kfitton 13:44, 14 March 2008 (UTC)

Introduction to the French Revolution

There go my people. I must find out where they are going so I can lead them. — Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, French politician (1807-1874)

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Simple English

File:Prise de la
The storming of the Bastille, on 14 July, 1789

The French Revolution was a time in French history between 1789 and 1799. During these years, the government and ideas about how France should be ruled changed many times. Generally, ordinary people wanted more power and more rights.

The most famous event that began the Revolution was the Storming of the Bastille on 14 July, 1789. This led to the end of the monarchy and the start of the Terror in which thousands of people including the king of France Louis XVI, were killed because they did not agree with the Revolution. Many thousands more were killed in the Revolutionary Wars between France and countries that did not like the changes in France.

The Revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte took power in November 1799 and began his dictatorship.



Before 1789, France was ruled by the king, the nobles and the church only. This was called an absolute monarchy. Most of the people had little power and were very poor. The ideas of the Enlightenment were beginning to make these ordinary people want more power. They could see that the American Revolution had created a country in which people had power, instead of a king. The government before the revolution was called the Old Regime.


Many problems in France led up to the Revolution:

  1. Under the Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, France had been supporting the American Revolution and been part of the Seven Years War. This had made the country very poor with a huge national debt.
  2. The high price of bread caused the ordinary people to suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This made them dislike the rich nobles who had the money to eat well and build huge houses.
  3. The Roman Catholic Church, which owned the most land in France, put a tax on crops called the dime (tithe) which hurt the poorest and hungriest people.
  4. Ideals of the Enlightenment. Many people disliked total rule by the royalty and the nobility. They could see that in other countries, such as in the new country America, people like them had more influence on the government. They also wanted freedom of religion.

The Revolution happened because King Louis XVI failed to deal with these problems.

The ‘Estates-General’

Before the Revolution, France was divided into three Estates. The First Estate was the church and made up 0.5% of the population. The Second Estate was the nobility and made up 1.5% of the population. The other 98% of the population was in the Third estate. Representatives of the people from all three estates together made up the Estates-General.

The Palace of Versailles. This is where the Estates-General met in 1789.

In May 1789, an Estates-General was called by the King in order to deal with the money problems of the country. They met at the royal Palace of Versailles. However, the members of the Third Estate were angry. They had made lists of problems they wanted to fix called the Cahiers de Doléances.

The members of the Third Estate were angry that they were being taxed the most when they were the poorest group of people. They, and the Director-General of Finances Jacques Necker, thought the Church and the Nobility ought to be taxed more.

They also wanted votes in the Estates-General to be fairer. Even though the Third Estate had lots more members than the other two Estates, each Estate only had one vote in the Estates-General. The Third Estate thought this could be improved by giving members of the Estates-General a vote each. However, when they talked to the other Estates, they could not agree.

Forming the National Assembly

[[File:|left|thumb|Sketch by Jacques-Louis David of the National Assembly taking the Tennis Court Oath]] Since the First and Second Estates would not listen, The Third Estate decided to break away and start their own assembly where every member would get a vote. On 10 June 1789, they started the National Assembly. The king tried to stop them by closing the Salle des Etats meeting room but they met in an indoor tennis court instead. On June 20th, they took the Tennis Court Oath where they promised to work until they had created a new constitution for France.

The Storming of the Bastille

[[File:|right|thumb|100px|A sans-coulotte, a radical revolutionary, carrying a tricolor flag.]]

In July 1789, after the National Assembly was formed, the nobility and the king were angry with Jacques Necker, the Director-General of Finances, and they fired him. Many Parisians thought the King was going to try to shut down the National Assembly. Soon, Paris was filled with riots and looting.

On 14 July 1789, the people decided to attack the Bastille prison. The Bastille contained weapons, as well as being a symbol of the power of the nobility and the rule of the king, the "Ancien Regime". By the afternoon, the people had broken into the Bastille and released the seven prisoners being held there. They killed the Governor of the prison, Bernard de Launay, and put his head on a stick.

The Members of the Third Estate took over Paris. The president of the National Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, became mayor of the city. Jacques Necker was given back his job as Director-General of Finances. Soon, the King visited Paris and took the red, white and blue (tricolor) ribbons (cockade) that the revolutionaries were wearing. By the end of July, the revolution had spread all over France.

The National Assembly

The National Assembly began to make lots of changes. On 4 August, the concept of feudalism was ended, putting a stop to the rights of the Nobility over their people and the special taxes the Church was collecting. On 26 August, the National Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was written by the nobleman the marquis LaFayette.

The National Assembly began to decide how it would be under the new constitution. Many members, especially the nobles, wanted a senate or a second upper house. However, more people voted to keep having just one assembly. The King was given a suspensive veto over law which meant he would only have the power to delay laws being made, not stop them. In October 1789, after being attacked at the Palace of Versailles by a mob of 7,000 women, the King was convinced by LaFayette to move to Paris to the palace called Tuileries.

The Assembly began to divide into different parties. One was made up of those against the revolution, led by the nobleman Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazales and the churchman Jean-Sifrien Maury. This party sat on the right side. A second party was the Royalist democrats (monarchiens) which wanted to create a system like the constitutional monarchy of Britain, where the king would still be a part of the government. Jacques Necker was in this party. The third party was the National Party which was centre or centre-left. This included Honore Mirabeau and LaFayette.

Changes in the Church

Under the new government, the Roman Catholic Church would have much less power than they had before. In 1790, all special taxes and powers of the Church were cancelled. All the Church’s property was taken over by the state. On 12 July 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy made all clergy employees of the state and made them take an oath to the new constitution. Many clergy, as well as the Pope, Pius VI, did not like these changes.

Working on the Constitution

On 14 July 1790, a year since the storming of the Bastille, thousands of people gathered in the Champs de Mars to celebrate. Charles Maurice de Talleyrand led the crowd in a religious mass. The crowd, including the King and the royal family, took an oath of loyalty to “the nation, the law, and the king.” However, many nobles were unhappy with the revolution and were leaving the country. They were called émigrés (emigrants).

Although the members of the Estates-General had only been elected for a year, the members of the Assembly had all taken the Tennis Court Oath. They had promised to keep working until they had a constitution and no constitution had been made. It was decided that the members would keep working until they had a constitution.

The Assembly continued to work on a constitution and make changes. Nobles could no longer pass their titles to their children. Only the king was allowed to do this. For the first time, trials with juries were held. All trade barriers inside France were ended along with unions, guilds and workers groups. Strikes were banned.

Many people with radical ideas began to form political clubs. The most famous of these was the Jacobin Club, which had left-wing ideas. A right wing club was the Club Monarchique. In 1791, a law was suggested to prevent noble émigrés from leaving the country. Mirabeau had been against this law but he died on 2 April, and by the end of the year, the law was passed.

Royal family tries to leave Paris

File:Duplessi-Bertaux - Arrivee de Louis Seize a
The royal family returns to Paris on July 25th 1791, after trying to escape.

Louis XVI did not like the revolution, but did not want to get help from other countries or run away from France like the émigrés. General Bouille held the same views and wanted to help the king leave Paris. He said that he would give the King and his family help and support in his camp at Montmédy. The escape was planned for June 20, 1791. Dressed as servants, the royal family left Paris. However, their escape was not well planned and they were arrested at Varennes on the evening of June 21. The royal family was brought back to Paris. The Assembly imprisoned Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette, and suspended the king from his duty.

Completing the Constitution

Although the king had tried to escape, most members of the Assembly still wanted to include the king in their government rather than to have a Republic with no king at all. They agreed to make the king a figurehead, with very little power. The king would have to take an oath to the state. If he did not, or if he created an army to attack France, he would no longer be king.

Some people, including Jacques Pierre Brissot, did not like this. They thought the king should be completely removed from the throne and the constitution. Brissot made a petition and a huge crowd came to the Champs de Mars to sign it. Republican leaders Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins came and gave speeches.

The National Guard, led by LaFayette, was called in to control the crowd. The mob threw stones at the soldiers who first fired their guns over the heads of the crowd. When the crowd kept throwing stones, LaFayette ordered them to fire at the people. Up to 50 people were killed. After this, the government closed many of the political clubs and newspapers. Many radical left-wing leaders, including Danton and Desmoulins ran away to England or hid in France.

Finally the constitution was completed. Louis XVI was put back on the throne and came to take his oath to it. He wrote, “I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal.” The National Assembly decided that it would stop governing France on 29 September 1791. After that date, the Legislative Assembly would take over.

The Legislative Assembly (1791-1792)

The new Legislative Assembly met for the first time on October 1791. Under the Constitution of 1791, France was a Constitutional Monarchy. The King shared his rule with the Legislative Assembly but had the power to stop (veto) laws he did not like. He also had the power to choose ministers. The Legislative Assembly had about 745 members. 165 of them were “Feuillants”, or Constitutional Monarchists. 330 were Girondins and Jacobins, left-wing liberal republicans who did not want a king. The other 250 members were independent but they voted most often with the left wing.

The Legislative Assembly did not agree very well. The King used his veto to stop laws that would sentence émigrés with death. Because so many of the members of the Assembly were left-wing, they did not like this.


The kings and emperors of many foreign countries were worried by the French Revolution. They didn’t want revolution in their own countries. On 27 August 1791, Leopold II of the Holy Roman Empire/Austria, Frederick William II of Prussia and Louis XVI’s brother Charles-Philippe wrote the Declaration of Pillnitz. The Declaration asked for Louis XVI to be set free and the National Assembly to be ended. They promised that they would invade France if their requests were ignored. The Declaration was taken very seriously in among the revolutionaries.

With the Legislative Assembly in place, the problems didn’t go away. The Girondins wanted war because they wanted to take the revolution to other countries. The King and many of his supporters the Feuillants wanted war because they thought it would make the King more popular. Many French were worried that the émigrés would cause trouble in foreign countries against France.

On 20 April 1792, the Assembly voted to declare war on Austria (Holy Roman Empire). They planned to invade the Austrian Netherlands, but the revolution had made the army weak. Many soldiers deserted. Soon, Prussia joined on the Austrian side. They both planned to invade. Together, on 25 July, they wrote the Brunswick Manifesto promising that if the royal family was not hurt, no civilians would be hurt in the invasion. The French believed that this meant the king Louis XVI was working with the foreign kings. Prussia invaded France on 1 August, 1792. This first stage of the French Revolutionary Wars continued until 1797.

Crisis of Constitution

The people were turning against the Louis XIV. On 10 August 1792, the members of a revolutionary group called the [Paris Commune] attacked the Tuileries, where the King and Queen were living. The King and Queen were taken prisoner. The Legislative Assembly held an emergency meeting. Even though only a third of the members were there and most of them were Jacobins, they suspended the King from duty.

September Massacres

In September, things got worse. The Legislative Assembly had almost no power. No single group was controlling Paris or France. The country was being invaded by the Prussian Army. The revolutionaries were very angry and violent. They began to go into prisons and kill people they thought were traitors to France. They hated the priests of the Roman Catholic Church the most, but many nobles and ordinary people were also killed. By 7 September, 1,400 people were dead.

National Convention (1792-1795)

The Legislative Assembly had lost all its power. A new government was needed. On 20 September 1792, the National Convention was formed. The Convention had both Girondins and radical Jacobins.

Execution of Louis XVI

The Brunswick Manifesto had made many people suspicious of the king. They thought he was plotting with the Prussian and Austrian rulers to invade France. In January 1793, the National Convention voted and found Louis XVI guilty of “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety.” On 21 January, the King was executed using the guillotine. Marie Antoinette, the Queen, was executed on 16 October.

Revolt in Vendée

Painting showing the Battle of Choet in the Vendée 1793. Henri de La Rochejacquelein at the Battle of Cholet in 1793 by Paul-Emile Boutigny

People in the area of Vendée did not like the revolutionary government. They did not like the rules about the church in the Civil Constitution of the Church (1790) and new taxes put in place in 1793. They also disliked being forced to join the French army. In March, they rose up against the government in a revolt. The war lasted until 1796. Hundreds of thousands of people from Vendée (Vendeans) were killed by the Revolutionary French army.

The Jacobins Seize Power

Now that the king was dead, The National Convention made a new republican constitution that began on 24 June. It was the first one that did not include the king and gave every man in France a vote. However, it never came into power because of the trouble between the Jacobins and Girondins. The war with Austria and Prussia was causing the state to have money problems. Bread cost a lot of money and many people wanted things to change. In June 1793, the Jacobins began to take power. They wanted to arrest many Girondin members of the National Convention. In July, they were made more angry when Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, killed Jean-Paul Marat, a Jacobin.

By July, the coup was complete. The Jacobins had taken power. They put in new, radical laws including a new Republican Calendar with new months and new ten-day weeks. They made the army bigger and changed the officers to people who were better soldiers. Over the next few years, this helped the Republican army push back the attacking Austrians, Prussians, British and Spanish.

The Terror

[[File:|right|200px|thumb||Modern copies of a guillotine.]]

In July 1793, a Jacobin called Maximilien de Robespierre and eight other leading Jacobins set up the Committee of Public Safety. It was the most powerful group in France. This group and Robespierre were in charge of the Terror. Robespierre believed that if people were afraid the revolution would go better. The Terror lasted from the spring of 1793 to the spring of 1794.

It was not only the nobility who died in the Terror. Any one who broke the Jacobin’s laws or was even suspected of breaking their laws or working against them could be arrested and sent to the guillotine, most without a trial. Even powerful people who had been involved in the Jacobin coup were executed. Prisoners were taken from the prisons to “Madame Guillotine” in an open wooden cart called the tumbrel.

According to records, 16,594 people were executed with the guillotine. It is possible that up to 40,000 people died in prison or were killed during the Terror.

Thermidorian Reaction

[[File:|150px|thumb|left|Maximilien de Robespierre]]

By July 1794, people began to turn against Maximilien de Robespierre. He and his Revolutionary Tribunal had killed 1,300 people in six weeks. On 27 July (or the new Republican Calendar’s date Thermidor 9 Year II) The National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety turned against him. Robespierre tried to get help from the Convention’s right-wing members, but he failed.

A day later, Robespierre and many of his supporters in the Paris Commune were sent to the guillotine without any kind of trial. This reaction against Robespierre is called the Thermidorian Reaction.

Now that the terror was over the National Convention started to make a new Constitution, called the Constitution of the Year III. On 27 September 1794, the constitution came into effect.

The Directory (1795-1799)

The new constitution had created the Directory (Directoire), which was the first government of France to be bicameral (split into two houses). The lower house, the parliament, had 500 members. It was called the Conseil de Cinq-Cent, (Council of Five Hundred). The upper house, the senate, had 250 members and it was called the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Elders). There were five directors chosen every year by the Conseil des Anciens from a list made up by the Conseil de Cinq-Cent. This group was in charge and was called the Directory.

Although the constitution of 1793 had given all men in France a vote, in this constitution only people with a certain amount of property could vote. The Directory was much more conservative than the governments in France since 1789. The people were tired of radical changes and the unstable governments. Things were much more stable under the Directory than they had been before.

However, the Directors were disliked by the people, especially the Jacobins who wanted a republic and royalists who wanted a new King. France’s money problems did not go away. The Directors ignored elections that did not go the way they wanted. They ignored the constitution in order to do things to control the people. They used the ongoing war and the army to keep their power.

18 Brumaire

Napoleon Bonaparte

People rioted against the Directory, but the Directory used the army to stop them. The army, under the Corsican general Napoleon Bonaparte, became much more powerful. On 9 November, 1799 (18 Brumaire Year VIII) Bonaparte took power. This event is called 18 Brumaire. Napoleon Bonaparte set up a new government called the Consulate with him in power. This led to him becoming the dictator and, in 1804, the Emperor of France.

The 18 Brumaire marks the end of the Republican part of the French Revolution.

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