The French Revolution

By: Bennett Smith


  • France had been supporting the American Revolution and been part of the Seven Years War. This had made the country very poor with a huge national debt.
  • The high price of bread caused the middle and lower class to suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This made them dislike the rich nobles who had the money to eat well and build huge houses.
  • The Catholic Church, which owned the most land in France, put a tax on crops called the dime (tithe) which mostly hurt the lower class.
  • Ideals of the Enlightenment had taken influence . Many people disliked absolute rule by the royalty and the nobility. They could see that in other countries, such as in the new country America, people like them had more influence on the government.

Estates General

  • France was divided into 3 Estates. The First Estate was the Clergy (the church) and made up 1% of the population. The Second Estate was the Nobility and also made up 1% of the population. The other nearly 98% of the population was in the Third Estate. Representatives of the people from all three estates together made up the Estates-General.
  • In May 1789, the Estates-General was called by the King in order to deal with the money problems of the country. However, the members of the Third Estate had made lists of problems they wanted to fix immediately called the Cahiers de Doléances.
  • The members of the Third Estate were angry that they were being taxed the most and also demanded votes in the Estates-General to be fairer. However, when they talked to the other Estates about these changes and demands, they could not come to an agreement.

The National Assembly and Storming of the Bastille

  • Since the First and Second Estates would not listen, The Third Estate decided to break away and start their own assembly where every member would get a vote. On 10 June 1789, they started the National Assembly. The king tried to stop them by closing the Salle des États meeting room but they met in an indoor tennis court instead. On June 20th, they took the Tennis Court Oath where they promised to work until they had created a new constitution for France.
  • In July 1789, after the National Assembly was formed, the nobility and the king fired Jacques Necker, the Director-General of Finances. Many Parisians thought the King was going to try to shut down the National Assembly. Soon, Paris was filled with riots and looting.
  • On 14 July 1789, the people decided to attack the Bastille prison. The Bastille contained weapons, as well as being a symbol of the power of the nobility and the rule of the king, the "Ancien Régime". By the afternoon, the people had broken into the Bastille and released the seven prisoners being held there. They killed the Governor of the prison, Bernard de Launay, and put his head on a stick.
  • The Members of the Third Estate took over Paris, Jacques Necker was given back his job as Director-General of Finances, and by the end of July, the revolution had spread all over France.

Royal Family's Imprisonment

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

September Massacres

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

The Reign of Terror

  • In July 1793, a Jacobin called Maximilien de Robespierre and eight other leading Jacobins set up the Committee of Public Safety. It was the most powerful group in France. This group and Robespierre were responsible for the Reign of Terror. Robespierre believed that if people were afraid the revolution would go better. The Reign of Terror lasted from the spring of 1793 to the spring of 1794.
  • It was not only the nobility who died in the Reign of Terror. Any one who broke the Jacobin’s laws or was even suspected of breaking their laws or working against them could be arrested and sent to the guillotine, most without a trial. Even powerful people who had been involved in the Jacobin coup were executed. Prisoners were taken from the prisons to “Madame Guillotine”(a nickname for the guillotine) in an open wooden cart called the tumbrel.
  • According to records, 16,594 people were executed with the guillotine. It is possible that up to 40,000 people died in prison or were killed during the Reign of Terror.

Thermidorian Reaction

  • By July 1794, people began to turn against Maximilien de Robespierre. He and his Revolutionary Tribunal had killed 1,300 people in six weeks. On 27 July the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety turned against him. Robespierre tried to get help from the Convention’s right-wing members, but he failed.
  • A day later, Robespierre and many of his supporters in the Paris Commune were sent to the guillotine without any kind of trial. This reaction against Robespierre is called the Thermidorian Reaction.
  • Now that the terror was over the National Convention started to make a new Constitution, called the Constitution of the Year III. On 27 September 1794, the constitution came into effect. The Revolution and the Reign of Terror was over.