The French Revolution

The fierce fight for liberty, equality, and fraternity

The French Revolution was the overthrowing of the monarchy in France in the late 1700s. Discontent of the Third Estate, because they were unfairly represented, led them to rise up, challenging the Estates-General and declaring themselves the National Assembly. They created a new constitution of France, one that would bring "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." With this promise to the people, they vowed to make their government more just—in any way possible.

Recipe for Revolution

France was ruled by an absolute monarchy, but because of Enlightenment ideas, such as natural rights, the people realized that the government was unfair. For one, the First and Second Estates could always outvote the Third, even though this estate consisted of the majority of the population. About 75-80% of this estate was made up of peasants, who had little food, land, or money due to feudalism. Workers, craftsmen, and shop-owners were also struggling to survive because of inflation, while the bourgeoisie, or middle class, was simply angry about the nobles' special privileges. These factors, plus

  • poor harvests
  • increased price of food
  • unjust taxation
  • government bankruptcy (immediate cause of revolution)
  • the ability for the nobles and bourgeoisie to challenge the monarchy

started the ball rolling towards revolution.

The Three Estates

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The estates of France were social divisions that classified the Roman Catholic clergy as the First Estate, the nobles as the Second Estate, and everyone else as the Third Estate. The First and Second estates were exempt from paying France's main tax, the taille, and on top of that, they could always outvote the Third. Both of these factors caused the Third Estate to resent this unfair system because, while the other two estates owned most of the wealth, they were the majority of the population.

The Estates General

The Estates-General was France's legislative body that consisted of the nation's representatives meeting together, and, because the monarchy was so powerful, it had not met for 175 years. Due to the financial crisis in which the government was on the brink of collapse, King Louis XVI called a meeting at the Palace of Versailles (Louis XIV's hunting lodge-turned luxury palace) on May 5, 1789. Although the Third Estate fought honorably for the right of equal representation based on population, not class, ultimately the king and other estates did not agree. As a result, the Third Estate broke away from the Estates-General and declared itself the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. Three days later, a promise was made that they would not stop gathering until they had drawn up a new constitution for the nation, known as the Tennis Court Oath.

The Revolution Begins

The Declaration

Frantic to find ammunition to fight off the king's guard, who was rumored to be on the way, the rebels in Paris stormed the Bastille, a fortress used as a prison. Finding none, the angry mob tore it apart, brick by brick, and then the real chaos began. Scared that armies of other countries would crush the revolts going on across the country, peasants panicked, creating the Great Fear. The National Assembly reacted to these events by accepting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which promised the "natural and imprescriptible rights of man," such as "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression," to all the citizens of France. Some principles it granted:

  • freedom and equality of all men (no more special priveleges for the first two estates)
  • freedom of speech and the press
  • public office positions based on talent
  • everyone pays taxes

Controversy sparked regarding whether or not to include women in the Declaration; Olympe de Gouges is famous for her own declaration--one for women, that is. Even though women were excluded from it, the Declaration of the Rights of man and the Citizen united France to fight for the unalienable rights their current government, an absolute monarchy, had taken from them.

New Changes and War

Not only did thousands of Parisian women marched to Versailles and forced the king to agree to the National Assembly's decrees, they also forced him to move to the capital; this way, a close eye could be kept on the royal family to prevent them from gaining power again. Because the Roman Catholic Church had always been so powerful, the National Assembly took control of it and sold off their land for profit. Also, the Constitution of 1791 was controversial because it favored the wealthy citizens and was too conservative for the radicals. Then, the royal family attempted to flee the country and got caught. In addition to all of this, France declared war on Austria in the spring of the following year because they threatened to help get King Louis XVI back in power.

The Paris Commune

The radicals in Paris formed a commune, or city council, and attacked the palace and Legislative Assembly. They captured the king and made him powerless, then changed the voting system so that all men could vote for representatives. The members of the Paris Commune called themselves the sans-culottes, French for "without breeches," because they long pants instead of breeches.

A Radical Turn

The revolution took a radical turn because the people felt that the conservative methods had shown little improvement in their lives that had been full of suffering for so long. External threats, because the other countries in Europe wished to restore the monarchy, also drove the people to support more outrageous measures to help their country. Violence was widespread, directed not only at the royals, but also at innocent civilians, as seen in the September massacres of 1792. The king was executed on January 21, 1793, and the fate of the nation was left to the Committee of Public Safety, which had to deal with a lot of chaos, including the war with neighboring countries.

The Reign of Terror

From 1793-1794, the Committee of Public Safety took over France's government as a temporary response to domestic revolts and external threats; this period is known as the Reign of Terror. Thousands upon thousands of deaths by the national razor, or guillotine, occurred; people were scared for their lives because government spies were everywhere, searching to turn in people who made comments even as innocent as "I feel so badly for the king." Also, the Committee created a "Republic of Virtue," that is, the "ideal" society, and tried to de-Christianize France. Then, even after the war looked more positive, Robespierre continued with his harsh policies, but the people, and the those in the National Convention, had had enough. On July 28, 1794, Robespierre was guillotined, and the Terror was over as soon as moderates gained more control in a couple of months.

The Next Chapter

The National Convention became more conservative, restored order, and created a new constitution. The Directory was the executive committee of the new government, but it only lasted for four years because it was corrupt. Because some people still disagreed about the government and France was involved in expensive wars, the Directory was vulnerable to be overthrown in a coup d'état. This was led by a well-known general by the name of Naopleon Bonaparte.


A Military Hero

After working his way up military rankings to become a general, Napoleon aided in the overthrowing of the Directory, making himself first consul, then emperor of France. His government, the consulate, was a supposed republic, but gave all power to Napoleon. Some of his policies include

  • peace with the Roman Catholic Church
  • unifying laws (most significant law code=Civil Code, which protected the revolution's principles and made women inferior to men)
  • creating a strong administration
  • keeping all citizens legally equal
  • re-instituting censorship

Military Conquests

Napoleon's Grand Empire consisted of the French Empire, dependent states (kingdoms ruled by his relatives), and allied states (countries conquered by France). The allied states were forced to help fight Britain, who wanted the monarchy back in power. Actions were taken to prevent British goods from being sold in Europe, called the Continental System, but this failed. Also, the conquered people's had strong nationalistic feelings that united them against France. After invading Russia in June of 1812 for refusing to follow the Continental System, Napoleon and his troops were forced to retreat because of an early winter and lack of food. The army was now vulnerable, so Paris was captured and Napoleon was exiled.

Another King Louis?

Louis XVIII, former King Louis XVI's brother, became the new monarch after Napoleon was exiled. He sent troops after Napoleon sneaked back into the country, but no one fired. In fact, he was welcomed into Paris and even raised another army. Unfortunately, his glorious return came to a humiliating end when British and Prussian forces defeated his army and exiled him to St. Helena, where he remained until his death. Because of Napoleon's conquests, the revolution's principle's were spread all over Europe; although his coup d'état ended the revolution, he actually kept it alive.

Significant People

Maximilien Robespierre

This radical Jacobin dictated the Committee of Public Safety, which gave him the power to carry out the policies that became known as the Reign of Terror, when thousands of people were guillotined. This eventually resulted in his death by the same fate; the people he had once fought so passionately to defend were also the cause of his demise.

King Louis XVI

Executed by his own people, Louis XVI was a poor king with a intense desire to keep his power, but when he got ready to crush the rebellion, his own royal guard even turned against him! He was forced to follow the new constitution. While trying to flee the country, he and his family were recognized; since they were now officially "traitors," the people had an excuse to be rid of the monarch they had so fiercely loathed.

Marie Antoinette

Notorious for spending vast amounts of money on extravagant fashion, this queen was hated so much that she was guillotined because she was a symbol of the monarchy in France.

Napoleon Bonaparte

Part of coup d’etat that overthrew the Directory, he was the first consulate, or emperor, of France. He is best known for his military conquests and many reforms.

Jean-Paul Marat

Marat was a famous radical that published Friend of the People. He condemned moderate Girondins because he believed that aggression and force were the only ways for the revolutionaries to succeed, as proven when he supported the violence in September of 1792.

Georges Danton

Danton was a key figure in the attack of the palace in August of 1792 because, after recently becoming minister of justice, he fired up the members of the Paris Commune (the radical city council of Paris) to do so. Also, he controlled the Committee of Public Safety before Robespierre did.

Olympe de Gouges

Possibly one of the first modern feminists, this woman refused to believe that the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen should exclude women, so she drew up her own, the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.


From King Louis to the Committee, from the Directory to Napoleon, France went through incredible changes in little over a quarter of a century. The people's unhappiness with the monarchy finally led them to overthrow it, but chaos followed. With Robespierre's control of the Committee of Public Safety came the Terror, which only ended with his death. Then came along the Directory, which its leaders used for profit. Because of this, Napoleon toppled it, and became France's emperor. The legacy of all of these events helped shape France's future and that of the rest of the world.

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