The French Revolution (1789-1799) was a period in history of political reform and violence. The events of the revolution had an impact not only in France but around the globe as well. It marked the widespread shift from monarchies to republican and democratic governments that began during the late eighteenth century. Although the revolution had its failings, it also helped to end age-old power structures not only within France and Europe, but within their colonies as well. The French Revolution demonstrated that common people could wield political power and utterly transform a nation. It also greatly contributed to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became the leader of the country as the monarchy was deposed.
- During the eighteenth century, France was in political and economic turmoil, which made the royalty very unpopular and paved the way for a revolution.
- The French Revolution was motivated by several causes, primarily the need for political change in the direction of responding to the demands of the majority—the common people. This translated into the need for a reduction of the king's powers in exchange for more power being granted to the common citizenry.
- The revolution itself was plagued by political divisions. People disagreed on the amount of power the king should have as well as how an ideal republic should be run, resulting in violent transfers of power throughout the decade.
- Although the primary goal of the French Republic was to benefit the common people through the creation of an ideal republican government, it resulted in fear, intimidation, and violence. The events during this most violent period of the French Revolution became known in history as the Reign of Terror.
- Napoleon Bonaparte was a soldier who rose to fame at the time of the French Revolution. At the war's end, he made history by declaring himself the foremost ruler of France.
The Ancien Régime
France was governed by the Ancien Régime ("former regime") since the fifteenth century. The Ancien Régime was a political and social system based on feudalism and the monarchy, whereby a monarch or landowner would provide land to the common people to farm or live on in return for loyalty and servitude, and possible military service. Those in power during the Ancien Régime divided the people into three categories: the First, Second, and Third Estated. The First Estate comprised the clergy; the Second, the monarchy and nobility; and the Third, the middle class and peasantry. Under the Ancien Régime, the First Estate along with some members of the Second held the most political power.
Members of the Third Estate asserted that this power dynamic was unfair. Their desire for political change was further heightened by the ideals proffered by political philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment (c. eighteenth century), who advocated for liberty and progress. Although the Age of Enlightenment is often viewed as a time of awareness and understanding, it also produced ideas such as absolutism, or the belief that a ruler should have unrestrained power. Under this political doctrine, the French king wielded absolute power without restrictions. At the time of the revolution, France was ruled by an absolute monarch, King Louis XVI (1754-1793).
Louis XVI quickly became unpopular, however, because of France's many financial troubles during his reign. France had participated in the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), which was itself an inspiration for the French Revolution. Backing the United States cost France a great deal of money. Coupled with years of famine and fiscal crises, it became clear that heavy taxes were needed. However, members of the First and Second Estates enjoyed many exemptions, leaving the majority of the Third Estate to shoulder the burden of the kingdom's debts.
Adding to the Third Estate's burgeoning resentment of the monarchy was its growing perception of the nobility's excesses. Scandals such as the Affair of the Diamond Necklace in 1784-1785, in which the queen was unwittingly entangled in a scheme designed to extort money, further deepened public resentment toward royalty, particularly Louis XVI and his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette (1755-1793).
To ease the growing tensions among the three Estates, the king convened the Estates-General in 1789. The Estates-General was a meeting where the three estates could air their grievances and advise the king. The Estates-General sought to improve conditions, but failed because the First and Second Estates held more influence than the Third in these meetings.
One of the major proponents for political change during this time was the Abbé Sieyès (1748-1836). Although a clergyman, Sieyès embraced revolutionary ideals. In fact, his 1789 pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate? became a highly influential document in the events that transpired during the French Revolution. He argued that the Third Estate alone was enough to constitute a nation without the "dead weight" of the other two Estates.
During the Estates-General, delegates from the Third Estate met alone and took the so-called "Tennis Court Oath" (Serment du Jeu de Paume). Through this oath, they vowed to work together as the nascent National Assembly until they could advance a new constitution for France. A week later, Louis XVI merged the other two Estates into the National Assembly.
Reform and Rebellion
While the National Assembly, which became known as the National Constituent Assembly, worked on reforming the French constitution, violence broke out in Paris. Many Parisians had fallen under the belief that Louis was trying to undermine the assembly. They decided to rebel by storming the Bastille prison, a symbol of royal tyranny. The rebels broke into the prison, looting it and freeing its prisoners in an action that became known as the "Storming of the Bastille." This was the first of a series of events that marked the period of the French Revolution.
Buoyed by revolutionary fervor, many citizens of the Third Estate from all over France rose up against the ruling elite. In the meantime, the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism. It also produced one of the most acclaimed civil rights documents: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The Declaration took inspiration from the U.S. Declaration of Independence as well as from Enlightenment thinkers who advocated liberal politics and democracy. Moreover, this document proclaimed the end of the Ancien Régime. In its place, the Declaration proposed a more democratic society where everyone could enjoy equal opportunity, freedom of speech, and a representative government founded on popular sovereignty—the will of the people.
After two years, the new French constitution was adopted. Leading up to that time, the people had suffered economic difficulties. Because of their strife, many Parisian women banded together in October 1789 to march to the palace of Versailles. They appealed to the crown to improve their harsh living conditions and demanded relief, especially from the high cost of food. Many revolutionaries soon joined in their cause. Ultimately, this march was an important turning point for the uprising, as it was the largest gathering of insurrectionists in history and signified that the king's power was weakening.
The revolutionaries also sought to reduce the powers of the First Estate—that is, the Catholic Church. The assembly created legislation that steadily weakened the powers of the Church. The 1790 Civil Constitution of the Clergy introduced reforms to the Catholic Church that cleric authorities resisted. One such reform was that the civil constitution prioritized the state's authority over that of the Pope.
In 1791, the royal family made a failed attempt to flee the country. Not long after, war was declared between France and the nations of the First Coalition (the Holy Roman Empire, Great Britain, Spain, Portugal, and others) in 1792. One motivation for this war was the safety of the French royal family. During the war, a young soldier named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) distinguished himself in battle.
The First French Republic
The First French Republic was established to replace the absolutism of the old order. Under this new system—a constitutional monarchy—the king was given some limited political powers as he ruled alongside the Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Constituent Assembly), which was staffed by elected representatives. Despite such compromises, however, radical elements among the revolutionaries called for a more republican form of government—one that represented the people and a government in which a king took no part.
By 1792, barely a year after the Legislative Assembly was formed, a crisis emerged as the new government failed to capitalize on the gains of the revolution. Louis XVI did not care for his new role and sought to reestablish the old order. France's ongoing financial troubles as well as some of the assembly's more controversial legislation led to further chaos and an increasingly radicalized citizenry. Further revolutionary uprisings occurred, including an insurrection directed at the royal palace that resulted in the king's arrest in September 1792. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed by guillotine for the crime of treason.
The Legislative Assembly was dismantled by the revolutionaries and replaced by the National Convention, ushering in the First French Republic and abolishing the monarchy. The convention, however was divided chiefly between two factions—the radical Jacobins and the moderate Girondins, the latter of whom had been the leading political party in France. Jacobins believed in a centralized authority within the republican government, whereas the Girondins hoped for a stable bourgeoisie (middle class) with capitalistic tendencies. The strain of continued overseas conflicts, trouble in the colonies, and domestic political turmoil further strengthened the Jacobins' position. The Girondins were almost entirely wiped out in a purge in 1793, leaving the Jacobins free to dominate the convention.
The Reign of Terror
With the Jacobins in power, the so-called "Reign of Terror" (1793-1794) began. It was considered the bloodiest period of events during the revolution. Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre (1758-1794) was the head of the Committee of Public Safety and an advocate of the Reign of Terror. He believed in instilling fear and terror into the citizenry and disregarded much of the human cost in achieving an ideal republic.
During the Reign of Terror, Robespierre headed the Revolutionary Tribunal, which sat in judgement of those suspected of being "enemies of liberty." This caused widespread paranoia among the populace as people feared being accused of going against the revolutionary government, which at this point was essentially the Committee of Public Safety. Many people were arrested without due process, and many more were executed, among them Marie Antoinette.
Robespierre's increasingly radical policies, however, made him unpopular with other members of the National Convention. In 1794, Robespierre made a fatal declaration, proclaiming that there were conspirators within the convention. Members of the convention, fearing another purge, had him arrested and executed, thus ending the Reign of Terror.
The Final Phase
With Robespierre gone, the French Revolution entered a more moderate phase headed by the surviving Girondins. They suppressed the remaining Jacobins and established a new government that overturned many of the laws made during the revolution. Although they reconciled with the Catholic Church and reestablished the concept of freedom of religion, Christianity was not fully restored to France until the Napoleonic era (1799-1815).
The remaining Jacobins rebelled, but without much success, while France was still fighting wars with other European nations. In the meantime, Louis XVII (1785-1795), the young son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, died from illness while in prison. In addition, the War of the Second Coalition (1798-1802) was conducted soon after the end of the first war. France suffered major setbacks, which worsened its domestic situation.
By this time, Sieyès felt that the French government needed another overhaul. When Napoleon returned to France in 1799 as a war hero, Sieyès seized the opportunity to convince him to join in a coup d'état. This resulted in the Coup of 18 Brumaire, a bloodless struggle during which power was transferred to a new government called the Consulate. Napoleon, who was plotting his own rise to power, immediately made himself the most powerful man in the Consulate, as well as in France. As such, the French Revolution ended, jump-starting the Napoleonic era in France.
Critical Thinking Questions
- Why was there a need to change the political system in France from the Ancien Régime?
- By their very nature, revolutions tend to create violence and lead to war. What are ways that radical change can be enacted in a country while mitigating the threat of violence?
- Compare and contrast the benefits/detriments of a constitutional monarchy and a republic. Which is more suited to European nations today? Please explain.