This article is part of the 
History of France series.
 France in the Middle Ages
 Valois Dynasty
 Bourbon Dynasty
 French Revolution
 First French Empire
 French Restoration
 Second Republic
 Second French Empire
 Third Republic
 France during World War II
 Fourth Republic
 Fifth Republic

The French Revolution is a period in the history of France covering the years 1789-1799, in which the monarchy was overthrown and radical restructuring was forced upon the Roman Catholic Church. While France was to oscillate among republic, empire, and monarchy for 75 years after the First Republic fell to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution nonetheless spelled a definitive end to the ''ancien régime ''.

Table of contents
1 Causes
2 History
3 See also
4 Further reading
5 External links


See main article Causes of the French Revolution.

Many factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners and with individuals of all classes who were influenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment. As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.

Certainly, all of the following must be counted among the causes of the revolution:

  • Resentment of royal absolutism.
  • Resentment of the seigneurial system by peasants, wage-earners, and a rising bourgeoisie.
  • The rise of enlightenment ideals.
  • An unmanageable national debt, both caused by and exacerbating the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
  • Food scarcity in the years immediately before the revolution.


Prelude, 1770s -1787: Financial Crisis

It all started when French king
Louis XVI faced a crisis in the royal finances. The French crown, which was fiscally one and the same as the French state, was deep in debt. During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI several different ministers, most notably Turgot, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlements (law courts), which the nobility dominated.

Because the need to raise taxes placed the king at odds with the established nobility, his finance ministers were were typically, to use François Mignet's term, "rising men" [1], usually of non-noble origin. Turgot, Chrétien de Malesherbes, and Jacques Necker successively attempted to revise the system of taxation and to make other reforms, such as Necker's attempts to reduce the lavishness of the king's court. Each was rebuffed in turn.

In contrast, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, appointed finance minister in 1783, restored lavish spending more reminiscent of the age of Louis XIV. By the time Calonne brought together an assembly of notables on February 22, 1787 to address the financial situation, France was as good as bankrupt: no one would lend the king funds sufficient to meet the expenses of government and court. According to Mignet, the loans amounted to "one thousand six hundred and forty-six millions... and... there was an annual deficit... of a hundred and forty millions [presumably of livres]." [1] Calonne was succeeded by his chief critic Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne, archbishop of Sens, but the fundamental situation was unchanged: the government had no credit. To try to address this, the assembly "sanctioned the establishment of provincial assemblies, a regulation of the corn trade, the abolition of corvées, and a new stamp tax; it broke up on the 25th of May, 1787." [1]

The subsequent struggle with the parlaments in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of that the ancien régime was coming apart. In the ensuing struggle,

  • Protestants were restored to their rights.
  • Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of finances.
  • Louis XVI promised to convoke the Estates-General within five years.

The parlaments protested this as "ministerial tyranny." In response, several nobles including Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orleans were banished, resulting in a further series of conflicting decrees by the king and the parlaments. The conflict spilled out of the courts (and beyond the nobility) with disturbances in Dauphiné, Brittany, Provence, Flanders, Languedoc, and Béarn.

Despite the theory of ancien régime France as an absolute monarchy, it became clear that the royal government could not make the changes it desired without the consent of the nobility. The financial crisis had become a political crisis as well.

Prelude, 1788 - May 1789: Louis XVI summons the Estates-General

On July 13, 1787 parliament and the nobility had demanded that the king call the Estates-General; this had been seconded by the Estates of Dauphiné in the assembly of Vizille; on December 18, 1787, the king promised to call the Estates-General within five years; after Brienne's resignation on August 25, 1788, and with Necker back in charge of the nation's finances, the king, on August 8, 1788, agreed to convene the Estates-General in May 1789, for the first since 1614.

The prospect of an Estates-General highlighted the conflict of interest between the Second Estate (the nobility) and the Third Estate (in theory, all of the commoners; in practice the middle class or bourgeoisie). Society had changed since 1614. The First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate together represented only 2 percent of France's national population. The Third Estate, theoretically representing the other 98% of the French population and, in practice, representing an increasing proportion of the country's wealth, could still be outvoted by the other two Estates, which historically had often voted with each other. Many of this rising class nonetheless saw the calling of the Estates-General as a chance to gain power.

According to the model of 1614, the Estates-General would consist of equal numbers of representatives of each Estate. The Third Estate demanded double representation (which they already had in the provincial assemblies). This became a topic for pamphleteers, the most notable pamphlet being Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès "What is the Third Estate?" Necker, hoping to avoid conflict, convened a second assembly of notables on the November 6, 1788, but, to his chagrin, they rejected the notion of double representation. By calling the assembly, Necker had merely underlined the nobles' opposition to the inevitable policy.

A royal decree of November 27, 1788 announced that the Estates-General would amount to at least a thousand deputies; it also granted the double representation. Furthermore, mere priests (curés) could serve as deputies for the First Estate, and Protestants could be deputed to the Third Estate. According to Mignet, after reasonably honest elections, "The deputation of the nobility was comprised of two hundred and forty-two gentlemen, and twenty-eight members of the parliament; that of the clergy, of forty-eight archbishops or bishops, thirty-five abbés or deans, and two hundred and eight curés; and that of the communes, of two ecclesiastics, twelve noblemen, eighteen magistrates of towns, two hundred county members, two hundred and twelve barristers, sixteen physicians, and two hundred and sixteen merchants and agriculturists." Other sources give slightly different numbers, see French States-General.

May 5, 1789 - June 17, 1789: From Estates-General to National Assembly

When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on May 5, 1789 amidst general festivities, many in the Third Estate initially viewed the double representation as a revolution already peacefully accomplished. However, with the etiquette of 1614 strictly enforced, the clergy and nobility in their full regalia, the physical locations of the deputies from the three estates dictated by the protocol of an earlier era, there was an immediate hint that less had, in fact, been achieved.

When Louis XVI and Barentin (the Keeper of the Seals) addressed the deputies on May 6, the Third Estate discovered that royal decree granting double representation was something of a sham. Yes, they had as more representatives than the other two Estates combined, but voting would be "by orders": the 578 representatives of the Third Estate, after deliberating, were have their collective vote weighted exactly as heavily as that of each of the other Estates. The apparent intent of the king and of Barentin was for everyone to get directly to the matter of taxes. The larger representation of the Third Estate was only to be a symbol, while giving them no extra power. Necker was more sympathetic to the Third Estate, but on this occasion he spoke only about the fiscal situation. leaving it to Barentin to speak on how the Estates-General was to operate.

Trying to avoid the issue of representation and focus solely on taxes, the king and his ministers had gravely misjudged the situation. The Third Estate wanted the Estates to meet as one body and vote per deputy ("voting by poll" rather than "by orders"). The other two estates, while having their own grievances against royal absolutism, believed - correctly, as history was to prove - that they stood to lose more power to the Third Estate than they stood to gain from the king. The king's minister Necker sympathized with the Third Estate in this matter but the astute financier was a less astute politician. He decided to let the impasse play out to the point of stalemate before he would enter the fray. The result was that by the time the King yielded to the demand of the Third Estate, it seemed to all as a concession wrung from the monarchy, rather than a magnanimous gift that would have convinced the populace of the king's food will.

The impasse was immediate. The first order of business of the Estates-General was the verification of powers. Mirabeau, noble himself but elected to represent the Third Estate, tried but failed to keep the all three orders in a single room for this discussion. Instead of discussing the taxes of the king, the three estates began separately to discuss not taxes but the organization of the legislature. Shuttle diplomacy continued without success until May 27, 1789, when the nobles voted to stand firm for separate verification. The following day, Abbé Sieyès (a member of the clergy, but, like Mirabeau, elected to represent the Third Estate) moved that the Third Estate, which was now meeting as the Communes (Eng.: "Commons"), proceed with verification and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them.

On June 17, 1789, and with the failure of efforts to reconcile the three Estates, the Communes completed their own process of verification, thereby becoming the only Estate whose powers had been appropriately legalized. The Communes almost immediately voted a measure far more radical: they declared themselves to be 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 that they intended to do the nation's business with or without them.

June 17, 1789 - 1791: The Constituent Assembly and Storming of the Bastille

This newly constituted assembly immediately linked itself to the capitalists -- the sources of the credit needed to fund the national debt -- and to the common people. They consolidated the public debt and declared all existing taxes to have been previously illegally imposed, but voted in these same taxes provisionally, only as long as the Assembly continued to sit. This restored the confidence of capital and gave it a strong interest in keeping the Assembly in session. As for the common people, a committee of subsistence was established to deal with the food shortages.

Necker's previous plan of conciliation -- a complex scheme of giving in to the Communes on some points while holding firm on others -- had been bypassed by events. No longer interested in Necker's advice, Louis XVI, under the influence of the courtiers of his privy council, resolved to go in state to the Assembly, annul its decrees, command the separation of the orders, and dictate the reforms to be effected by the restored Estates-General.

It is (barely) imaginable that if Louis had simply marched into the Salle des États where the National Assembly was meeting, his plan might have succeeded. Instead, he remained at Marly and ordered the hall closed, expecting to prevent the Assembly from meeting for several days while he prepared. The Assembly simply moved their deliberations to the king's tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (June 20, 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution.

Two days later, deprived of use of the tennis court as well, the National Assembly met in the church of Saint Louis, where they were joined by the majority of the representatives of the clergy: efforts to restore the old order had served only to accelerate events. When, on June 23, 1789, in accord with his plan, the king finally addressed the representatives of all three estates, he was met with stony silence. He concluded by ordering all to disperse, and was obeyed by the nobles and clergy; the deputies of the common people remained seated in a silence that was finally broken by Mirabeau, whos short speech culminated, "A military force surrounds the assembly! Where are the enemies of the nation? Is Catiline at our gates? I demand, investing yourselves with your dignity, with your legislative power, you inclose yourselves within the religion of your oath. It does not permit you to separate till you have formed a constitution." [1] The deputies stood firm.

Necker, conspicuous by his absence from the royal party on that day, found himself in disgrace with Louis, but back in the good graces of the National Assembly. Those of the clergy who had joined the Assembly at the church of Saint Louis remained in the Assembly; forty-seven members of the nobility, including the duke of Orleans, soon joined them; by June 27, the royal party had overtly given in, although the likelihood of a military counter-coup remained in the air. The French military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles.

Messages of support poured into the Assembly from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, 1789 the Assembly, reconstituting itself as the National Constituent Assembly, addressed the king in polite but firm terms, requesting the removal of the troops (which now included foreign regiments, whose obedience to the king was far greater than was the case for French troops), but Louis declared that he alone could judge the need for troops, and assured them that the troops were strictly a precautionary measure. Louis "offered" to move the assembly to Noyon or Soissons: that is to say, to place it between two armies and deprive it of the support of the Parisian people.

Paris was unanimous in its support for the assembly, close to insurrection, and, in Mignet's words, "intoxicated with liberty and enthusiasm." [1] The press published the debates of the assembly; the political conversation spread beyond the Assembly itself into the public squares and halls of the capital. The Palais Royal and its grounds became the site of a continuous meeting. The crowd, on the authority of the meeting at the Palais Royal, broke open the prisons of the Abbaye to release some grenadiers of the French guards who had been imprisoned for refusing to fire on the people. The Assembly recommended them to the clemency of the king; they returned to prison, and received pardon. Their regiment now leaned toward the popular cause.

July 11, 1789, with troops at Versailles, Sèvres, the Champ de Mars, and Saint-Denis, the king, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished Necker (who headed for Brussels), and completely reconstructed the ministry. The marshal Victor François, Duc de Broglie, la Galissonnière, the duke de la Vauguyon, the Baron Louis de Breteuil, and the intendant Foulon, were appointed to replace Puységur, Armand Marc, comte de Montmorin, La Luzerne, Saint Priest, and Necker.

News of Necker's dismissal reached Paris the afternoon of Sunday, July 12, 1789, where it was generally presumed to be the start of a coup by conservative elements. Crowds gathered throughout the city, including more than ten thousand at the Palais Royal. Camille Desmoulins, according to Mignet, successfully rallied the crowd by "mount[ing] a table, pistol in hand, exclaiming: 'Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!'" [1]

A growing crowd, brandishing busts of Necker and of the duke of Orleans, passed through the streets to the Place Vendôme, where they put a detachment of the Royal-allemand (the king's German soldiers)) to flight by a shower of stones. At the Place Louis XV, the dragoons of the prince de Lambesc shot the bearer of one of the busts; a soldier was also killed. Lambesc and his soldiers ran rampant, attacking not only the demonstrators but anyone in their path.

The regiment of the French guard favourably disposed towards the popular cause had been confined to its barracks. With Paris becoming a general riot, de Lambesc, not trusting the regiment to obey this order, posted sixty dragoons to station themselves before its dépôt in the Chaussée-d'Antin. Once again, a measure intended to restrain only served to provoke. The French regiment routed their guard, killing two, wounding three, and putting the rest to flight. The rebellious citizenry had acquired a trained military contingent; as word of this spread, even the foreign troops refused to fight in what looked to be a civil war with a divided military.

The rebels gathered in and around the Hôtel de Ville and sounded the tocsin. Distrust between the leading citizens gathered within the building and the masses outside was exacerbated by the failure or inability of the former to provide the latter with arms. Between political insurrection and opportunistic looting, Paris was a chaos. In Versailles, the Assembly stood firm, and went into continuous session so that it could not, once again, be stealthily deprived of its meeting space.

The storming of the Bastille prison on July 14th, 1789, is commemorated today as Bastille Day. The insurgents invaded the Hôtel des Invalides to gather arms, and after four hours of combat, seized the Bastille, killing Marquis Bernard de Launay and several of his guard. Although only seven prisoners were released -- four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender -- it became a potent symbol of all that was hated of the ancien régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville, the mob accused prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; on route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal, he was assassinated.

After this violence, nobles started to flee the country.

Initially, the Assembly announced (and for the most part probably believed) itself to be operating in the interests of the king as well as the people. In theory, royal authority still prevailed and the king's consent continued to be part of the process of adopting new laws.

August 4, 1789 the Assembly abolished feudalism, abolishing both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. August 26, they and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Laws passed November 2, 1789, February 13, 1790 and April 19, 1790 confiscated Church lands on behalf of the State. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed July 12, 1790 and signed by the king December 26, 1790, turning the remaining clergy into employees of the State and requiring that the take an oath of loyalty to the constitution. New paper money was introduced in that same year, causing high inflation.

1791-1792: the Legislative Assembly and the Fall of the Monarchy

The King tried to flee in June 1791 to join the nobles in exile, but his flight to Varennes did not succeed. He reluctantly accepted the new constitution in September 1791, which made France a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Assembly), but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to pick ministers.

New factions emerged such as the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists), Girondins (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries). The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins wanted to wage war. The King wanted war to become popular or be defeated: either would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution through Europe. France declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The French Revolutionary Wars had begun.

The Franco-Prussian Battle of Valmy (September 20, 1792) was the first significant military engagement of the French Revolutionary Wars. Although heavy rain prevented a conclusive resolution, the superiority of French artillery was evident.

1792: The Paris Commune

Nonetheless, fighting soon went badly and prices rose sky-high. In August 1792 a mob assaulted the Royal Palace in Paris and arrested the King. On September 21, 1792 monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. The French Revolutionary Calendar commenced.

1792-September 26, 1795) The Convention

The legislative power in the new republic was vested in the National Convention, while the executive power was vested in the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins became the most influential party in the Convention and on the Committee.

On January 21, 1793 King Louis condemned to death for "conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety" by a 1-vote Convention majority of 361 to 360. The execution caused more wars with European countries.

When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This caused the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup. The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). At least 1200 people met their deaths under the guillotine after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. 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 the trials were not over-scrupulous. This series of events could reasonably be compared to the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In 1794 Robespierre had ultraradicals and moderate Jacobins executed, so eliminating popular support. On July 27, 1794, the French people revolted against the excesses of the Reign of Terror in what had become known as the Thermidorian Reaction. It resulted in Robespierre and several other leadings members of the Committee of Public Safety being deposed and executed by moderate Convention members. The new Constitution of the Year III was voted by the Convention August 17, 1795 and ratified by plebescite in September, taking effect September 26, 1795

September 26, 1795 - November 9, 1799 The Directoire

The new constitution installed the Directoire and created the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament, consisted of 500 representatives (the Conseil des Cinq-Cent) and 250 senators (the Conseil des Anciens). Executive power was vested in five "directors" who were annually named by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by the Conseil des Cinq-Cent.

The new regime met with opposition from remaining Jacobins and royalists. Riots and counter-revolutionary activities were suppressed by the army. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte gained much power.

On November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon staged the coup which installed the Consulate; this effectively led to his dictatorship and eventually to his proclamation as emperor, which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.

See also

Further reading

External links

This article makes use of the out-of-copyright History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814'', by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.