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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

External links

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

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The French Revolution by William Blake
Source: See also: The French Revolution (poem) on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.



LONDON: Printed for J. Johnson, No 72,
St Paul's Church-yard. MDCCXCI.

{Price One Shilling.}

PAGE [iii]


The remaining Books of this Poem are finished, and will be published in their Order.

PAGE [1]


Book the First.

The dead brood over Europe, the cloud and vision descends over chearful France;
O cloud well appointed! Sick, sick: the Prince on his couch, wreath'd in dim
And appalling mist; his strong hand outstretch'd, from his shoulder down the bone
Runs aching cold into the scepter too heavy for mortal grasp. No more
To be swayed by visible hand, nor in cruelty bruise the mild flourishing mountains. <5>

Sick the mountains, and all their vineyards weep, in the eyes of the kingly mourner;
Pale is the morning cloud in his visage. Rise, Necker: the ancient dawn calls us
To awake from slumbers of five thousands years. I awake, but my soul is in dreams;
From my window I see the old mountains of France, like aged men, fading away.

Troubled, leaning on Necker, descends the King, to his chamber of council; shady mountains <10>
In fear utter voices of thunder; the woods of France embosom the sound;
Clouds of wisdom prophetic reply, and roll over the palace roof heavy,
Forty men: each conversing with woes in the infinite shadows of his soul,
Like our ancient fathers in regions of twilight, walk, gathering round the King;
Again the loud voice of France cries to the morning, the morning prophecies to its clouds. <15>

For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation. France shakes! And the heavens of France
Perplex'd vibrate round each careful countenance! Darkness of old times around them
Utters loud despair, shadowing Paris; her grey towers groan, and the Bastile trembles.
In its terrible towers the Governor stood, in dark fogs list'ning the horror;
A thousand his soldiers, old veterans of France, breathing red clouds of power and dominion, <20>
Sudden seiz'd with howlings, despair, and black night, he stalk'd like a lion from tower
To tower, his howlings were heard in the Louvre; from court to court restless he dragg'd
His strong limbs; from court to court curs'd the fierce torment unquell'd,
Howling and giving the dark command; in his soul stood the purple plague,
Tugging his iron manacles, and piercing through the seven towers dark and sickly, <25>
Panting over the prisoners like a wolf gorg'd; and the den nam'd Horror held a man
Chain'd hand and foot, round his neck an iron band, bound to the impregnable wall.
In his soul was the serpent coil'd round in his heart, hid from the light, as in a cleft rock;
And the man was confin'd for a writing prophetic: in the tower nam'd Darkness, was a man
Pinion'd down to the stone floor, his strong bones scarce cover'd with sinews; the iron rings <30>
Were forg'd smaller as the flesh decay'd, a mask of iron on his face hid the lineaments


Of ancient Kings, and the frown of the eternal lion was hid from the oppressed earth.

In the tower named Bloody, a skeleton yellow remained in its chains on its couch
Of stone, once a man who refus'd to sign papers of abhorrence; the eternal worm
Crept in the skeleton. In the den nam'd Religion, a loathsome sick woman, bound down <35>
To a bed of straw; the seven diseases of earth, like birds of prey, stood on the couch,
And fed on the body. She refus'd to be whore to the Minister, and with a knife smote him.
In the tower nam'd Order, an old man, whose white beard cover'd the stone floor like weeds
On margin of the sea, shrivel'd up by heat of day and cold of night; his den was short
And narrow as a grave dug for a child, with spiders webs wove, and with slime <40>
Of ancient horrors cover'd, for snakes and scorpions are his companions; harmless they breathe
His sorrowful breath: he, by conscience urg'd, in the city of Paris rais'd a pulpit,
And taught wonders to darken'd souls. In the den nam'd Destiny a strong man sat,
His feet and hands cut off, and his eyes blinded; round his middle a chain and a band
Fasten'd into the wall; fancy gave him to see an image of despair in his den, <45>
Eternally rushing round, like a man on his hands and knees, day and night without rest.
He was friend to the favourite. In the seventh tower, nam'd the tower of God, was a man
Mad, with chains loose, which he dragg'd up and down; fed with hopes year by year, he pined
For liberty; vain hopes: his reason decay'd, and the world of attraction in his bosom
Center'd, and the rushing of chaos overwhelm'd his dark soul. He was confin'd <50>
For a letter of advice to a King, and his ravings in winds are heard over Versailles.

But the dens shook and trembled, the prisoners look up and assay to shout; they listen,
Then laugh in the dismal den, then are silent, and a light walks round the dark towers.


For the Commons convene in the Hall of the Nation; like spirits of fire in the beautiful
Porches of the Sun, to plant beauty in the desart craving abyss, they gleam <55>
On the anxious city; all children new-born first behold them; tears are fled,
And they nestle in earth-breathing bosoms. So the city of Paris, their wives and children,
Look up to the morning Senate, and visions of sorrow leave pensive streets.

But heavy brow'd jealousies lower o'er the Louvre, and terrors of ancient Kings
Descend from the gloom and wander thro' the palace, and weep round the King and his Nobles. <60>
While loud thunders roll, troubling the dead, Kings are sick throughout all the earth,
The voice ceas'd: the Nation sat: And the triple forg'd fetters of times were unloos'd.
The voice ceas'd: the Nation sat: but ancient darkness and trembling wander thro' the palace.

As in day of havock and routed battle, among thick shades of discontent,

On the soul-skirting mountains of sorrow cold waving: the Nobles fold round the King, <65>
Each stern visage lock'd up as with strong bands of iron, each strong limb bound down as with marble,
In flames of red wrath burning, bound in astonishment a quarter of an hour.

Then the King glow'd: his Nobles fold round, like the sun of old time quench'd in clouds;
In their darkness the King stood, his heart flam'd, and utter'd a with'ring heat, and these words burst forth:

The nerves of five thousand years ancestry tremble, shaking the heavens of France; <70>
Throbs of anguish beat on brazen war foreheads, they descend and look into their graves.


I see thro' darkness, thro' clouds rolling round me, the spirits of ancient Kings
Shivering over their bleached bones; round them their counsellors look up from the dust,
Crying: Hide from the living! Our b[a]nds and our prisoners shout in the open field,
Hide in the nether earth! Hide in the bones! Sit obscured in the hollow scull. <75>
Our flesh is corrupted, and we [wear] away. We are not numbered among the living. Let us hide
In stones, among roots of trees. The prisoners have burst their dens,
Let us hide; let us hide in the dust; and plague and wrath and tempest shall cease.

He ceas'd, silent pond'ring, his brows folded heavy, his forehead was in affliction,
Like the central fire: from the window he saw his vast armies spread over the hills, <80>
Breathing red fires from man to man, and from horse to horse; then his bosom
Expanded like starry heaven, he sat down: his Nobles took their ancient seats.

Then the ancientest Peer, Duke of Burgundy, rose from the Monarch's right hand, red as wines
From his mountains, an odor of war, like a ripe vineyard, rose from his garments,
And the chamber became as a clouded sky; o'er the council he stretch'd his red limbs, <85>

Cloth'd in flames of crimson, as a ripe vineyard stretches over sheaves of corn,
The fierce Duke hung over the council; around him croud, weeping in his burning robe,
A bright cloud of infant souls; his words fall like purple autumn on the sheaves.

Shall this marble built heaven become a clay cottage, this earth an oak stool, and these mowers
From the Atlantic mountains, mow down all this great starry harvest of six thousand years? <90>
And shall Necker, the hind of Geneva, stretch out his crook'd sickle o'er fertile France,


Till our purple and crimson is faded to russet, and the kingdoms of earth bound in sheaves,
And the ancient forests of chivalry hewn, and the joys of the combat burnt for fuel;
Till the power and dominion is rent from the pole, sword and scepter from sun and moon,
The law and gospel from fire and air, and eternal reason and science <95>
From the deep and the solid, and man lay his faded head down on the rock
Of eternity, where the eternal lion and eagle remain to devour?
This to prevent, urg'd by cries in day, and prophetic dreams hovering in night,
To enrich the lean earth that craves, furrow'd with plows; whose seed is departing from her;
Thy Nobles have gather'd thy starry hosts round this rebellious city, <100>
To rouze up the ancient forests of Europe, with clarions of cloud breathing war;
To hear the horse neigh to the drum and trumpet, and the trumpet and war shout reply;
Stretch the hand that beckons the eagles of heaven; they cry over Paris, and wait
Till Fayette point his finger to Versailles; the eagles of heaven must have their prey.
The King lean'd on his mountains, then lifted his head and look'd on his armies, that shone <105>
Through heaven, tinging morning with beams of blood, then turning to Burgundy troubled:


Burgundy, thou wast born a lion! My soul is o'ergrown with distress

For the Nobles of France, and dark mists roll round me and blot the writing of God
Written in my bosom. Necker rise, leave the kingdom, thy life is surrounded with snares;
We have call'd an Assembly, but not to destroy; we have given gifts, not to the weak; <110>
I hear rushing of muskets, and bright'ning of swords, and visages redd'ning with war,

Frowning and looking up from brooding villages and every dark'ning city;
Ancient wonders frown over the kingdom, and cries of women and babes are heard,
And tempests of doubt roll around me, and fierce sorrows, because of the Nobles of France;
Depart, answer not, for the tempest must fall, as in years that are passed away. <115>


He ceas'd, and burn'd silent, red clouds roll round Necker, a weeping is heard o'er the palace;
Like a dark cloud Necker paus'd, and like thunder on the just man's burial day he paus'd;
Silent sit the winds, silent the meadows, while the husbandman and woman of weakness
And bright children look after him into the grave, and water his clay with love,
Then turn towards pensive fields; so Necker paus'd, and his visage was cover'd with clouds. <120>


Dropping a tear the old man his place left, and when he was gone out
He set his face toward Geneva to flee, and the women and children of the city
Kneel'd round him and kissed his garments and wept; he stood a short space in the street,
Then fled; and the whole city knew he was fled to Geneva, and the Senate heard it.

But the Nobles burn'd wrathful at Necker's departure, and wreath'd their clouds and waters <125>
In dismal volumes; as risen from beneath the Archbishop of Paris arose,
In the rushing of scales and hissing of flames and rolling of sulphurous smoke.

Hearken, Monarch of France, to the terrors of heaven, and let thy soul drink of my counsel;

Sleeping at midnight in my golden tower, the repose of the labours of men
Wav'd its solemn cloud over my head. I awoke; a cold hand passed over my limbs, and behold <130>
An aged form, white as snow, hov'ring in mist, weeping in the uncertain light,


Dim the form almost faded, tears fell down the shady cheeks; at his feet many cloth'd
In white robes, strewn in air sensers and harps, silent they lay prostrated;
Beneath, in the awful void, myriads descending and weeping thro' dismal winds,
Endless the shady train shiv'ring descended, from the gloom where the aged form wept. <135>
At length, trembling, the vision sighing, in a low voice, like the voice of the grasshopper whisper'd:
My groaning is heard in the abbeys, and God, so long worshipp'd, departs as a lamp
Without oil; for a curse is heard hoarse thro' the land, from a godless race
Descending to beasts; they look downward and labour and forget my holy law;
The sound of prayer fails from lips of flesh, and the holy hymn from thicken'd tongues; <140>
For the bars of Chaos are burst; her millions prepare their fiery way
Thro' the orbed abode of the holy dead, to root up and pull down and remove,
And Nobles and Clergy shall fail from before me, and my cloud and vision be no more;
The mitre become black, the crown vanish, and the scepter and ivory staff
Of the ruler wither among bones of death; thy shall consume from the thistly field, <145>
And the sound of the bell, and voice of the sabbath, and singing of the holy choir,
Is turn'd into songs of the harlot in day, and cries of the virgin in night.
They shall drop at the plow and faint at the harrow, unredeem'd, unconfess'd, unpardon'd;
The priest rot in his surplice by the lawless lover, the holy beside the accursed,
The King, frowning in purple, beside the grey plowman, and their worms embrace together. <150>
The voice ceas'd, a groan shook my chamber; I slept, for the cloud of repose returned,

But morning dawn'd heavy upon me. I rose to bring my Prince heaven utter'd counsel.
Hear my counsel, O King, and send forth thy Generals, the command of heaven is upon thee;
Then do thou command, O King, to shut up this Assembly in their final home;


Let thy soldiers possess this city of rebels, that threaten to bathe their feet <155>
In the blood of Nobility; trampling the heart and the head; let the Bastile devour
These rebellious seditious; seal them up, O Anointed, in everlasting chains.
He sat down, a damp cold pervaded the Nobles, and monsters of worlds unknown
Swam round them, watching to be delivered; When Aumont, whose chaos-born soul
Eternally wand'ring a Comet and swift-failing fire, pale enter'd the chamber; <160>
Before the red Council he stood, like a man that returns from hollow graves.

Awe surrounded, alone thro' the army a fear ad a with'ring blight blown by the north;
The Abbe de Seyes from the Nation's Assembly. O Princes and Generals of France
Unquestioned, unhindered, awe-struck are the soldiers; a dark shadowy man in the form
Of King Henry the Fourth walks before him in fires, the captains like men bound in chains <165>
Stood still as he pass'd, he is come to the Louvre, O King, with a message to thee;
The strong soldiers tremble, the horses their manes bow, and the guards of thy palace are fled.

Up rose awful in his majestic beams Bourbon's strong Duke; his proud sword from his thigh
Drawn, he threw on the Earth! the Duke of Bretagne and the Earl of Borgogne
Rose inflam'd, to and fro in the chamber, like thunder-clouds ready to burst. <170>

What damp all our fires, O spectre of Henry, said Bourbon; and rend the flames
From the head of our King! Rise, Monarch of France; command me, and I will lead

This army of superstition at large, that the ardor of noble souls quenchless,
May yet burn in France, nor our shoulders be plow'd with the furrows of poverty.


Then Orleans generous as mountains arose, and unfolded his robe, and put forth <175>
His benevolent hand, looking on the Archbishop, who changed as pale as lead;
Would have risen but could not, his voice issued harsh grating; instead of words harsh hissings
Shook the chamber; he ceas'd abash'd. Then Orleans spoke, all was silent,
He breath'd on them, and said, O princes of fire, whose flames are for growth not consuming,
Fear not dreams, fear not visions, nor be you dismay'd with sorrows which flee at the morning; <180>
Can the fires of Nobility ever be quench'd, or the stars by a stormy night?
Is the body diseas'd when the members are healthful? can the man be bound in sorrow
Whose ev'ry function is fill'd with its fiery desire? can the soul whose brain and heart
Cast their rivers in equal tides thro' the great Paradise, languish because the feet
Hands, head, bosom, and parts of love, follow their high breathing joy? <185>
And can Nobles be bound when the people are free, or God weep when his children are happy?
Have you never seen Fayette's forehead, or Mirabeau's eyes, or the shoulders of Target,
Or Bailly he strong foot of France, or Clermont the terrible voice, and your robes
Still retain their own crimson? mine never yet faded, for fire delights in its form.
But go, merciless man! enter into the infinite labyrinth of another's brain <190>
Ere thou measure the circle that he shall run. Go, thou cold recluse, into the fires
Of another's high flaming rich bosom, and return unconsum'd, and write laws.
If thou canst not do this, doubt thy theories, learn to consider all men as thy equals,
Thy brethren, and not as thy foot or thy hand, unless thou first fearest to hurt them.

The Monarch stood up, the strong Duke his sword to its golden scabbard return'd, <195>
The Nobles sat round like clouds on the mountains, when the storm is passing away.


Let the Nation's Ambassador come among Nobles, like incense of the valley.

Aumont went out and stood in the hollow porch, his ivory wand in his hand;
A cold orb of disdain revolv'd round him, and covered his soul with snows eternal.
Great Henry's soul shuddered, a whirlwind and fire tore furious from his angry bosom; <200>
He indignant departed on horses of heav'n. Then the Abbe de Seyes rais'd his feet
On the steps of the Louvre, like a voice of God following a storm, the Abbe follow'd
The pale fires of Aumont into the chamber, as a father that bows to his son;
Whose rich fields inheriting spread their old glory, so the voice of the people bowed
Before the ancient seat of the kingdom and mountains to be renewed. <205>

Hear, O Heavens of France, the voice of the people, arising from valley and hill,
O'erclouded with power. Hear the voice of vallies, the voice of meek cities,
Mourning oppressed on village and field, till the village and field is a waste.
For the husbandman weeps at blights of the fife, and blasting of trumpets consume
The souls of mild France; the pale mother nourishes her child to the deadly slaughter. <210>
When the heavens were seal'd with a stone, and the terrible sun clos'd in an orb, and the moon
Rent from the nations, and each star appointed for watchers of night,
The millions of spirits immortal were bound in the ruins of sulphur heaven
To wander inslav'd; black, deprest in dark ignorance, kept in awe with the whip,
To worship terrors, bred from the blood of revenge and breath of desire, <215>
In beastial forms; or more terrible men, till the dawn of our peaceful morning,
Till dawn, till morning, till the breaking of clouds, and swelling of winds, and the universal voice,


Till man raise his darken'd limbs out of the caves of night, his eyes and his heart
Expand: where is space! where O Sun is thy dwelling! where thy tent, O faint slumb'rous Moon,
Then the valleys of France shall cry to the soldier, throw down thy sword and musket, <220>
And run and embrace the meek peasant. Her nobles shall hear and shall weep, and put off
The red robe of terror, the crown of oppression, the shoes of contempt, and unbuckle
The girdle of war from the desolate earth; then the Priest in his thund'rous cloud
Shall weep, bending to earth embracing the valleys, and putting his hand to the plow,
Shall say, no more I curse thee; but now I will bless thee: No more in deadly black <225>
Devour thy labour; nor lift up a cloud in thy heavens, O laborious plow,
That the wild raging millions, that wander in forests, and howl in law blasted wastes,
Strength madden'd with slavery, honesty, bound in the dens of superstition,
May sing in the village, and shout in the harvest, and woo in pleasant gardens,
Their once savage loves, now beaming with knowledge, with gentle awe adorned; <230>
And the saw, and the hammer, the chisel, the pencil, the pen, and the instruments
Of heavenly song sound in the wilds once forbidden, to teach the laborious plowman
And shepherd deliver'd from clouds of war, from pestilence, from night-fear, from murder,
From falling, from stifling, from hunger, from cold, from slander, discontent and sloth;
That walk in beasts and birds of night, driven back by the sandy desart <235>
Like pestilent fogs round cities of men: and the happy earth sing in its course,
The mild peaceable nations be opened to heav'n, and men walk with their fathers in bliss.
Then hear the first voice of the morning: Depart, O clouds of night, and no more

Return; be withdrawn cloudy war, troops of warriors depart, nor around our peaceable city
Breathe fires, but ten miles from Paris, let all be peace, nor a soldier be seen. <240>


He ended; the wind of contention arose and the clouds cast their shadows, the Princes
Like the mountains of France, whose aged trees utter an awful voice, and their branches
Are shatter'd, till gradual a murmur is heard descending into the valley,
Like a voice in the vineyards of Burgundy, when grapes are shaken on grass;
Like the low voice of the labouring man, instead of the shout of joy; <245>
And the palace appear'd like a cloud driven abroad; blood ran down, the ancient pillars,
Thro' the cloud a deep thunder, the Duke of Burgundy, delivers the King's command.

Seest thou yonder dark castle, that moated around, keeps this city of Paris in awe.
Go command yonder tower, saying, Bastile depart, and take thy shadowy course.
Overstep the dark river, thou terrible tower, and get thee up into the country ten miles. <250>
And thou black southern prison, move along the dusky road to Versailles; there
Frown on the gardens, and if it obey and depart, then the King will disband
This war-breathing army; but if it refuse, let the Nation's Assembly thence learn,
That this army of terrors, that prison of horrors, are the bands of the murmuring kingdom.

Like the morning star arising above the black waves, when a shipwreck'd soul sighs for morning, <255>
Thro' the ranks, silent, walk'd the Ambassador back to the Nation's Assembly, and told
The unwelcome message; silent they heard; then a thunder roll'd round loud and louder,
Like pillars of ancient halls, and ruins of times remote they sat.
Like a voice from the dim pillars Mirabeau rose; the thunders subsided away;


A rushing of wings around him was heard as he brighten'd, and cried out aloud, <260>

Where is the General of the Nation? the walls reecho'd: Where is the General of the Nation?

Sudden as the bullet wrapp'd in his fire, when brazen cannons rage in the field,
Fayette sprung from his seat saying, Ready! then bowing like clouds, man toward man, the Assembly
Like a council of ardors seated in clouds, bending over the cities of men,
And over the armies of strife, where their children are marshall'd together to battle; <265>
They murmuring divide, while the wind sleeps beneath, and the numbers are counted in silence,
While they vote the removal of War, and the pestilence weighs his red wings in the sky.

So Fayette stood silent among the Assembly, and the votes were given and the numbers numb'red;
And the vote was, that Fayette should order the army to remove ten miles from Paris.

The aged sun rises appall'd from dark mountains, and gleams a dusky beam <270>
On Fayette, but on the whole army a shadow, for a cloud on the eastern hills
Hover'd, and stretch'd across the city and across the army, and across the Louvre,
Like a flame of fire he stood before dark ranks, and before expecting captains
On pestilent vapours around him flow frequent spectres of religious men weeping
In winds driven out of the abbeys, their naked souls shiver in keen open air, <275>
Driven out by the fiery cloud of Voltaire, and thund'rous rocks of Rousseau,
They dash like foam against the ridges of the army, uttering a faint feeble cry.


Gleams of fire streak the heavens, and of sulpur the earth, from Fayette as he lifted his hand;
But silent he stood, till all the officers rush round him like waves
Round the shore of France, in day of the British flag, when heavy cannons <280>
Affright the coasts, and the peasant looks over the sea and wipes a tear;
Over his head the soul of Voltaire shone fiery, and over the army Rousseau his white cloud

Unfolded, on souls of war-living terrors silent list'ning toward Fayette,
His voice loud inspir'd by liberty, and by spirits of the dead, thus thunder'd.

The Nation's Assembly command, that the Army remove ten miles from Paris; <285>
Nor a soldier be seen in road or in field, till the Nation command return.

Rushing along iron ranks glittering the officers each to his station
Depart, and the stern captain strokes his proud steed, and in front of his solid ranks
Waits the sound of trumpet; captains of foot stand each by his cloudy drum;
Then the drum beats, and the steely ranks move, and trumpets rejoice in the sky. <290>
Dark cavalry like clouds fraught with thunder ascend on the hills, and bright infantry, rank
Behind rank, to the soul shaking drum and shrill fife along the roads glitter like fire.
The noise of trampling, the wind of trumpets, smote the palace walls with a blast.
Pale and cold sat the king in midst of his peers, and his noble heart stink, and his pulses
Suspended their motion, a darkness crept over his eye-lids, and chill cold sweat <295>
Sat round his brows faded in faint death, his peers pale like mountains of the dead,
Cover'd with dews of night, groaning, shaking forests and floods. The cold newt


And snake, and damp toad, on the kingly foot crawl, or croak on the awful knee,
Shedding their slime, in folds of the robe the crown'd adder builds and hisses
From stony brows; shaken the forests of France, sick the kings of the nations, <300>
And the bottoms of the world were open'd, and the graves of arch-angels unseal'd;
The enormous dead, lift up their pale fires and look over the rocky cliffs.

A faint heat from their fires reviv'd the cold Louvre; the frozen blood reflow'd.
Awful up rose the king, him the peers follow'd, they saw the courts of the Palace

Forsaken, and Paris without a soldier, silent, for the noise was gone up <305>
And follow'd the army, and the Senate in peace, sat beneath morning's beam.


[No further books are extant.]


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