French Revolution

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The storming of the Bastille, on 14 July, 1789; painting by Jean-Pierre Houël

The French Revolution was a revolution in France from 1789 to 1799. It led to the end of the monarchy. The Revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte took power in November 1799 and began his dictatorship. King Louis XVI was executed.

Introduction[change | change source]

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

Causes[change | change source]

Many problems in France led up to the Revolution:

  1. Under the Kings Louis XV and Louis XVI, France had been supporting the American Revolution and been part of the Seven Years War. (They did not support the American Revolution in support of democracy, but out of desire to weaken the British, their longtime adversaries). This had made the country very poor with a huge national debt.
  2. The high price of bread caused the ordinary people to suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This made them dislike the rich nobles who had the money to eat well and build huge houses.
  3. The Roman Catholic Church, which owned the most land in France, put a tax on crops called the dime (tithe) which hurt the poorest and hungriest people.
  4. Ideals of the Enlightenment. Many people disliked 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. They also wanted freedom of religion.

The ‘Estates-General’[change | change source]

Before the Revolution, France was divided into three Estates. The First Estate was the Clergy (the church) and made up 1% of the population. The Second Estate was the Nobility and made up 2% of the population. The other 97% of the population was in the Third Estate. Representatives of the people from all three estates together made up the Estates-General.

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

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


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

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

Forming the National Assembly[change | change source]

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

Since the First and Second Estates would not listen, The Third Estate decided to break away and start their own assembly where every member would get a vote. On 10 June 1789, they started the National Assembly. The king tried to stop them by closing the Salle des 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.

The Storming of the Bastille[change | change source]

A sans-coulotte, a radical revolutionary, carrying a tricolor flag.

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

On 14 July 1789, the people decided to attack the Bastille prison. The Bastille contained weapons, as well as being a symbol of the power of the nobility and the rule of the king, the "Ancien 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. The president of the National Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath, Jean-Sylvain Bailly, became mayor of the city. Jacques Necker was given back his job as Director-General of Finances. Soon, the King visited Paris and wore the red, white and blue (tricolor) ribbons (cockade) that the revolutionaries were wearing. By the end of July, the revolution had spread all over France.

The National Assembly[change | change source]

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

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

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

Changes in the Kings Church[change | change source]

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

Working on the Constitution[change | change source]

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

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

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

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

Royal family tries to leave Paris[change | change source]

The royal family returns to Paris on July 25th 1791, after trying to escape.

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

Completing the Constitution[change | change source]

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

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

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

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

The Legislative Assembly (1791-1792)[change | change source]

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

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

War[change | change source]

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

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

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

Crisis of Constitution[change | change source]

The Paris Commune attacks the Tuileries

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[change | change source]

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

National Convention (1792-1795)[change | change source]

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

Execution of Louis XVI[change | change source]

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

Revolt in Vendée[change | change source]

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

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

The Jacobins Seize Power[change | change source]

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

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

The Terror[change | change source]

Modern copies of a guillotine.

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

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

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

Thermidorian Reaction[change | change source]

Maximilien de Robespierre

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

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

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

The Directory (1795-1799)[change | change source]

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

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

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

18 Brumaire[change | change source]

Napoleon Bonaparte

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

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

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