french revolution failure essay

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French Revolution

By: History.com Editors

Updated: October 12, 2023 | Original: November 9, 2009

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a watershed event in world history that began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens radically altered their political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as the monarchy and the feudal system. The upheaval was caused by disgust with the French aristocracy and the economic policies of King Louis XVI, who met his death by guillotine, as did his wife Marie Antoinette. Though it degenerated into a bloodbath during the Reign of Terror, the French Revolution helped to shape modern democracies by showing the power inherent in the will of the people.

Causes of the French Revolution

As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution , combined with extravagant spending by King Louis XVI , had left France on the brink of bankruptcy.

Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but several years of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes—yet failed to provide any relief—by rioting, looting and striking.

In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, proposed a financial reform package that included a universal land tax from which the aristocratic classes would no longer be exempt.

Estates General

To garner support for these measures and forestall a growing aristocratic revolt, the king summoned the Estates General ( les états généraux ) – an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility and middle class – for the first time since 1614.

The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789; in the meantime, delegates of the three estates from each locality would compile lists of grievances ( cahiers de doléances ) to present to the king.

Rise of the Third Estate

France’s population, of course, had changed considerably since 1614. The non-aristocratic, middle-class members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies.

In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto—in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status.

While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they had long enjoyed under the traditional system.

Tennis Court Oath

By the time the Estates General convened at Versailles , the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into open hostility between the three orders, eclipsing the original purpose of the meeting and the authority of the man who had convened it — the king himself.

On June 17, with talks over procedure stalled, the Third Estate met alone and formally adopted the title of National Assembly; three days later, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume), vowing not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved.

Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI grudgingly absorbed all three orders into the new National Assembly.

The Bastille 

On June 12, as the National Assembly (known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution) continued to meet at Versailles, fear and violence consumed the capital.

Though enthusiastic about the recent breakdown of royal power, Parisians grew panicked as rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate. A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution.

The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the entire country. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the aristocratic elite.

Known as the Great Fear ( la Grande peur ), the agrarian insurrection hastened the growing exodus of nobles from France and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789, signing what historian Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order.”

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

IIn late August, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen ( Déclaration des droits de l ’homme et du citoyen ), a statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau .

The document proclaimed the Assembly’s commitment to replace the ancien régime with a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.

Drafting a formal constitution proved much more of a challenge for the National Constituent Assembly, which had the added burden of functioning as a legislature during harsh economic times.

For months, its members wrestled with fundamental questions about the shape and expanse of France’s new political landscape. For instance, who would be responsible for electing delegates? Would the clergy owe allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church or the French government? Perhaps most importantly, how much authority would the king, his public image further weakened after a failed attempt to flee the country in June 1791, retain?

Adopted on September 3, 1791, France’s first written constitution echoed the more moderate voices in the Assembly, establishing a constitutional monarchy in which the king enjoyed royal veto power and the ability to appoint ministers. This compromise did not sit well with influential radicals like Maximilien de Robespierre , Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton, who began drumming up popular support for a more republican form of government and for the trial of Louis XVI.

French Revolution Turns Radical

In April 1792, the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, where it believed that French émigrés were building counterrevolutionary alliances; it also hoped to spread its revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare.

On the domestic front, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by the extremist Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792.

The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic.

On January 21, 1793, it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine ; his wife Marie-Antoinette suffered the same fate nine months later.

Reign of Terror

Following the king’s execution, war with various European powers and intense divisions within the National Convention brought the French Revolution to its most violent and turbulent phase.

In June 1793, the Jacobins seized control of the National Convention from the more moderate Girondins and instituted a series of radical measures, including the establishment of a new calendar and the eradication of Christianity .

They also unleashed the bloody Reign of Terror (la Terreur), a 10-month period in which suspected enemies of the revolution were guillotined by the thousands. Many of the killings were carried out under orders from Robespierre, who dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, 1794.

Did you know? Over 17,000 people were officially tried and executed during the Reign of Terror, and an unknown number of others died in prison or without trial.

Thermidorian Reaction

The death of Robespierre marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction, a moderate phase in which the French people revolted against the Reign of Terror’s excesses.

On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of Girondins who had survived the Reign of Terror, approved a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral legislature.

Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory ( Directoire ) appointed by parliament. Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, now led by a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte .

French Revolution Ends: Napoleon’s Rise

The Directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular discontent, inefficiency and, above all, political corruption. By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to maintain their authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field.

On November 9, 1799, as frustration with their leadership reached a fever pitch, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d’état, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself France’s “ first consul .” The event marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era, during which France would come to dominate much of continental Europe.

Photo Gallery 

marie antoinette, austrian princess, louis xvi, wife of louis xvi, the dauphin of france, symbol of the monarchy's decadence, the french revolution

French Revolution. The National Archives (U.K.) The United States and the French Revolution, 1789–1799. Office of the Historian. U.S. Department of State . Versailles, from the French Revolution to the Interwar Period. Chateau de Versailles . French Revolution. Monticello.org . Individuals, institutions, and innovation in the debates of the French Revolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . 

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A study guide by Swansea University Historians

Historians have identified multiple causes of the French Revolution, both long and short term. Early, royalist and clerical interpretations of the Revolution cast it as a conspiracy orchestrated by Enlightenment philosophes . From the late nineteenth century, explanations based on the theories of Karl Marx became dominant. In this reading the Revolution resulted from a struggle for power between the old feudal nobility, whose status was based on the ownership of land, and the bourgeoisie, who acquired wealth through trade, finance and the professions. In 1789 the bourgeoisie made common cause with the peasantry and the urban labouring classes to begin the Revolution.

The Marxist interpretation of the French Revolution was increasingly challenged after 1945. Critics pointed out that there were many nobles amongst those clamouring for reform in 1789. Moreover, the distinction between noble and commoner was not as clear as once supposed. Nobles were also involved in trade and finance, whilst many wealthy bourgeoisie purchased patents of nobility. Indeed, the French nobility was relatively open and rich commoners bought and married their way to social mobility. Economic and social status were, therefore, revealed to be a poor guide to political behaviour and the idea of monolithic ‘classes’ out for their own economic interests increasingly untenable.

This critique increasingly led historians to move away from social and economic causes as explanations for the Revolution. Instead, they focused on the role political and cultural causes played in fomenting the Revolution. The emergence of a revolutionary political culture has been identified. This culture was expressed in the increasing number of journals, newspapers, pamphlets and books and found a forum in the spread of coffee shops, salons, societies and clubs. It was this culture, these revisionist interpretations argued, that prompted the events of 1789.

The post-war period also saw interest in the Revolution shift to encompass previously overlooked groups. The spread of second and third wave feminism led to more interest in the role of women in the French Revolution. There was also more interest in events outside of Paris and in the French Empire.  

In the last decade ‘revisionist’ accounts of the Revolution that emphasise politics and culture have themselves been challenged. Questions have been raised about how political ideas were translated into concrete action on the streets of Paris? How could the revolutionary political culture mobilise the peasantry and urban poor? Several historians have argued that there must be a re-examination of the social causes of the Revolution. How did cultural and political developments identified by revisionist historians interact with the social and economic changes experienced by the wider French population?

Nevertheless, historians acknowledge that the Revolution was caused by a multiplicity of factors. The rest of this essay will provide an overview of these factors.

La Grande Nation: France as a Great Power

At first glance eighteenth-century France was the powerhouse of Europe. It was the foremost of the five Great European Powers (France, Britain, Austria, Russia and Prussia). It was the largest state in western Europe. Moreover, its population was almost 28 million, making it the most populous state in Europe after Russia.

France also had a colonial empire in the Caribbean and outposts elsewhere. It’s colonial possessions were not as extensive as those of the British, but by 1780s they comprised the richest colony in the world in Saint Domingue (later Haiti). In 1780 Saint Domingue supplied half the world’s exports of coffee and sugar and generated twice as much revenue as Spain’s richest colony, Mexico. In the late 1780s France sent more trading vessels to India than Britain and, between 1787 and 1791, even shipped more slaves from Africa than the British. 

The most vibrant economic sector in France was, therefore, the slave/sugar trade that operated out of the Atlantic ports of Nantes and Bordeaux. However, other areas of the economy also underwent expansion in the eighteenth century. In the Paris basin commercial farming had spread, whilst Lyon remained the centre of banking and the silk trade. 

By 1789 France’s GDP was three times that of Britain. Its large population and vibrant colonial trade provided a potentially large tax base through which France could finance its military. As a consequence, France boasted the largest European army and a powerful navy. The power of that military had been illustrated by the crucial aide France had provided the American revolutionaries in their struggle against the British during the American War of Independence.

Aside from its military might France also enjoyed a great deal of ‘soft power’. French was the second language of the educated across most of Europe. French forms in literature, theatre, fashion and cuisine were greatly influential. French philosophers and writers, such as Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Diderot, also played an important role in the eighteenth-century Enlightenment.  

The Weaknesses of the Eighteenth-Century French State  

Despite the advantages, however, the French state suffered from several structural weaknesses that belied its great power status. First, France suffered from financial problems throughout the eighteenth century. The nobility enjoyed many tax exemptions. They were exempt, for example, from the taille , the principal land tax. The Catholic Church, which owned a tenth of the land in France, was completely exempt. Instead, the Church negotiated a don gratuit (free gift) with the Crown in lieu of taxation. As a consequence the tax burden fell disproportionately on those least able to bear it, the peasantry. Between a third and a half of a peasant’s income were siphoned off by seigneurial dues, the Church tithe and taxes. Moreover, 56 per cent of the tax burden also fell on landed property, the least dynamic sector of the economy.

Second, numerous attempts were made to reform the tax system and the economy in the eighteenth century, but all failed because of the resistance of the nobility and the parlements. Resistance was fostered by the widespread system of venality, whereby wealthy individuals could purchase certain public offices, such as seats on the parlements . In the seventeenth century this practice had provided the Crown with a cash flow in the short term, but it also meant that it was difficult to remove public officials without recompense. The parlements , law courts responsible for registering royal decrees so they could become law, in particular became centres of resistance of royal authority and attempts to overhaul the tax system. 

Third, although parts of the French economy, such as its colonial trade, were flourishing, economic development elsewhere was hindered by guild restrictions, internal customs barriers and tolls. The development of manufacturing and early industrial enterprises therefore lagged behind other countries like Britain. Although new crops and agricultural techniques, such as potatoes and crop rotation, were introduced they were slow to spread across France. A series of harvest failures in the 1770s and in the late 1780s led to increased food prices, poverty and hardship for large sections of the population.

Fourth, French structures of administration and governance were not uniform. The French state had expanded from the early middle ages through a mixed process of conquest, marriage and inheritance. As a result law codes varied between different regions and provinces. In the pays d’election regional autonomy had been subordinated to the Crown, but in the pays d’états provincial estates continued to exist. Some regions enjoyed special privileges. Brittany, for example, was exempt from the unpopular salt tax, the gabelle .  The jurisdiction of the thirteen parlements also varied widely. The parlement of Paris, for example, encompassed around a third of France, but the others covered much smaller areas. The complexity of the this system hindered attempts at reform.

Fifth, demographic and social changes also created their own problems. The growth of the population and the widespread system of partible inheritance, whereby land was divided among sons, created pressure of agricultural land. Some peasants were able to purchase extensive tracts of land and enjoy considerable prosperity, but a much larger segment led a more precarious existence. Around half the peasantry were landless or farmed just a small plot. A poor harvest could have devastating consequences for these communities.

Stagnating agricultural production and rising inflation further eroded the purchasing power of the peasantry. As bread prices rose and real wages fell increasing proportion of the poor’s income was allocated to subsistence. This undermined demands for manufactured goods fell, which in turn had a negative impact on textiles and other industries. In Troyes, for example, some 10,000 textile workers were unemployed by 1788. 

A process of polarisation was also evident at the other end of the social scale. The nobility dominated the higher echelons of the Catholic Church, but the parish priests were relatively poor. They were also more intimately connected with the local peasant and urban communities. 

Meanwhile, the traditional nobility was often resentful of the entry of rich commoners into the ranks of the aristocracy. This was particularly the case amongst the old ‘sword’ nobility, many of whom had seen a deterioration in their fortunes over the last century. Meanwhile, rising land rents meant that those aristocrats with larger estates were becoming less dependent on royal appointments, sinecures and pensions, than they had been in the seventeenth and early eighteenth century.

The failure to reform taxation meant that although France was a wealthy country the Crown had to turn increasingly  to borrowing to meet its expenditures. To make matters worse the costs of waging war rose exponentially in the eighteenth century as France’s global commitments expanded.

Military and Diplomatic Defeats

France suffered a series of military and diplomatic reversals in second half of the eighteenth century. In 1756, in the so-called ‘Diplomatic Revolution’, France broke its alliance with Prussia and allied itself with its traditional rival, Austria. Between 1756 and 1763 it fought both Britain and Prussia in the Seven Years’ War in Europe. Simultaneously, it was at war with Britain and its colonies in North America in the French and Indian War, whilst a proxy war was conducted by the French and English East Indian Companies in India.

France suffered a serious of heavy defeats on all fronts in this first global conflict. The British conquered New France to create the colony of Canada. The French East India Company’s influence in India was greatly reduced and Britain would come to dominate the sub-continent. In Europe, meanwhile, the French army was humiliated by Frederick the Great and the Prussians at the battle of Rossbach in 1757. Napoleon Bonaparte would later claim the Revolution had began 1757, when Prussia had humbled Bourbon military might.

France enjoyed more military success in the 1780s when it allied itself with the American rebels against the British Crown. However, King Louis XVI’s hopes that this alliance would lead to preferentially trading rights after the war were dashed as the new American Republic renewed its trading links with Britain.

French involvement in the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence added substantially to the state’s debts. Jacques Necker, finance minister from 1777 and 1781, had largely funded France’s war effort through loans. As a result the state debt ballooned to between 8 and 12 billion livres by 1789. Serving that debt consumed an increasing share of state revenue. Moreover, worries over France’s creditworthiness meant loans could only be acquired at higher rates of interest.

Fiscal and diplomatic problems came together in 1787. The international prestige of the monarchy was undermined when it was unable to intervene in the conflict between republican and Orangist forces in the neighbouring United Provinces because of a lack of funds.

The Enlightenment and the Rise of the Public Sphere

The French involvement in the American War of Independence had an impact beyond the financial. The American rebels had fought under the slogan of ‘no taxation without representation’. Yet the French officers and soldiers did not enjoy the same political rights that their American allies were fighting for. The incongruity of an absolute monarchy fighting in defence of a republic founded on universal male suffrage (excluding slaves) was not lost on many commentators in France and Europe. The Marquis de Lafayette, who had served alongside George Washington, became a hero on both sides of the Atlantic. The Declaration of Independence provided inspiration to would-be reformers and revolutionaries in France. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence would provide a template for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789.

Debate over domestic political reform was conducted in the pages of periodicals, books, pamphlets and journals that mushroomed in the eighteenth century. Rising literacy levels meant an increased audience for the written word. Some historians, such as Rolf Engelsing, have argued that eighteenth century Europe also witnessed as ‘reading revolution’. The literate began to read more widely rather then reading and rereading a small number of work, such as the Bible. This argument has been challenged. The Bible and other religious works remained very popular. However, the number of books published in Europe did rise exponentially during the eighteenth century. The Crown operated a system of censorship and controversial works, such as Voltaire’s Lettres philosophique and Dictonnaire philosophique , were burned. Banned works were, however, smuggled across the border from the Austrian Netherlands and the Dutch Republic, regimes with more liberal attitudes towards publishing.

This vibrant literary world was crucial to the spread of the public sphere. The term was coined by the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, and describes a social space where public opinion was formed. The development of the public sphere was also fostered by the spread of coffee shops. By 1789 Paris had 1,600 cafés. These often offered newspapers and periodicals to read as well as food and drink. They were, thus, spaces were ideas could circulate and be discussed. The salon, usually hosted by an aristocratic lady, provided a similar forum for discussion, albeit a more exclusive one than the coffee shop. Masonic lodges also spread in the eighteenth century and provided a network for the dissemination of ideas. 

It was through literature and in the public sphere that ideas for political and social reform were articulated. In 1748 Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws had identified three different forms of government - monarchical, republican and despotism - and advocated a separation of judicial, legislative and executive power. Voltaire praised England’s constitutional monarchic his Lettres philosophique , whilst Rousseau celebrated republican values. Foreign philosophers, particularly the work of John Locke, was also influential. All these intellectual currents fed into the intellectual ferment in the run up to the French Revolution and deeply influenced the attitudes of deputies of the National Assembly.

The public sphere, however, was not limited to high-minded discussion of political reforms and social matters. Several historians have pointed to the growth of politicised pornography in the later eighteenth century. Much of this literature featured those in positions of authority, such as clergymen and leading aristocratic statesmen. The royal family itself was also subject to this kind of writing. The Queen, Marie-Antoinette, was a particular target of slander and satire. As a Habsburg princess, she was associated with the disastrous Austrian alliance during the Seven Years’ War. She and Louis XVI also failed to produce a male heir until October 1781, eleven years after their marriage. Libels accused Marie-Antoinette of decadence, promiscuity, adultery and homosexuality.

Marie-Antoinette’s reputation was further tarnished by the ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’. In 1785 Cardinal de Rohan was duped in to buying a diamond necklace in order to curry favour with the Queen. The conmen, however, stole the necklace. The Queen had nothing to do with the ‘Affair’, but it was widely believed that she had instructed Rohan to buy the jewellery. The ‘Affair’ occurred against the background of a poor harvest and increased hardship for the poor. The extravagance of the jewellery solidified the image of the Queen as a spendthrift, more interested in her own luxury than the welfare of France.

Such slurs may not have led directly to the fall of the monarch, they nevertheless undermined the majesty and prestige of the Bourbons.

The Constitutional Crisis

In 1787 the French finance minister, Calonne, presented the king with a package of economic reforms aimed at addressing France’s financial problems. Calonne recognised that these reforms would take time to be effective. In order to meet the Crown’s immediate need for money Calonne suggested that the King summon a Council of Notables to approve the reforms. This would reassure lenders as to the solvency of the French state and allow it to borrow more money at better rates of interest.

The Council of Notables, however, refused to approve Calonne’s economic reforms. Led by the Duke of Orléans, Louis XVI’s cousin, the Notables demanded political reforms as the price of agreement. Louis XVI dissolved the Council and Calonne was dismissed. Brienne, Calonne’s replacement tried to force the reforms through the Parlement of Paris. The Parlement refused to register the reforms and also demanded political change. Louis responded by exiling the Parlement . A vigorous political debate emerged as the Parlement portrayed itself as the centre of resistance to royal despotism.

Brienne was dismissed and replaced by Necker. Necker persuaded the King to call the Estates General as a means of breaking the political deadlock. The Estates General, however, had not met since 1614 and represented a medieval view of how society functions. It was divided into three estates. The first represented the clergy, the second the nobility, whilst the third encompassed the mass of society in the commons. Each estate held its own elections, which were accompanied by the drawing up of lists of grievances, the so-called cahiers de doleances , that the deputies were to present to the King.

Initially, each estate was to have the same number of deputies, but a pamphlet campaign prior to the elections forced the King to agree reluctantly to double the number of deputies of the Third Estate. A key work in the debate was the manifesto What is the Third Estate? written by the Abbé Emmanuel Sieyès, in which he asked, ‘what is the Third Estate? Nothing. What does it wish to be? Everything’.

The 330 strong First Estate was dominated by deputies drawn from the parish clergy, whilst the old ‘sword’ nobility were the majority in the Second Estate. Some two-third of the deputies voted to the Third Estates were professional men, lawyer, notaries or judges who had experience of public debate and oratory.

Each estate voted en bloc. It was, therefore, still possible for the First and Second Estate to unite to block proposals from the Third. This proved a recipe for political stalemate. Whilst liberal-minded nobles wanted to work with the Third Estate, their conservative colleagues refused to abandon voting by bloc and insisted on defending their social status.  The deputies of the Third Estate called on the First and Second Estate to unite with them to deliberate and vote in common,  but they were ignored. Finally, on 10 June Sieyès suggested that the Third Estate proceed unilaterally. On 12 and 19 June several priests left the First Estate to join the Third. No longer representative of commoners alone the Third Estate voted on 17 June to range itself the National Assembly.

The King tried to reassert control over the Third Estate by locking it out it customary meeting place at the palace of Versailles on 20 June. The deputies gathered in the royal tennis court and swore an oath not to disband until they had provided France with a written Constitution. This Tennis Court Oath was a direct challenge to the authority of the King. More deputies from both the First and Second Estate now joined the National Assembly. On 23 June Louis XVI ordered the Estate to meet separately, but was ignored. The Comte de Mirabeau, a nobleman elected to the Third Estate, announced ‘we will not lave our seats except by the force of bayonets’. Finally, on 27 June Louis XVI, fearing popular unrest, ordered the remaining deputies of the First and Second Estates to join the National Assembly. The power and authority of the King had been badly undermined.

The Fall of the Bastille and the October Days

In July, however, Louis XVI appeared to change course. Orders had been issued on 26 June for regiments to march on Versailles and Paris, whilst the garrison of the Bastille was reinforced. Meanwhile, on 12 July Louis XVI dismissed Necker as finance minister.

News of Necker’s dismissal and troop concentration caused a mix of fear and anger In Paris. An angry crowd had assembled at the Palais Royale to protest at Necker’s dismissal. Here the lawyer turned radical journalist, Camille Desmoulins, addressed the crowd and advocated insurrection. Wearing green ribbons, a colour associated with liberty, the crowd ransacked guardhouses for weapons and warehouses for food. Crucially, the French Guards refused to intervene and many instead joined the crowd. On 14 July attention turned to the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison, but, more importantly, it was also an arsenal. The crowd that besieged the Bastille were more interested in seizing the guns and munitions stored there than freeing the prisoners. The governor, the Baron de Launay refused initially to surrender the fortress and fired on the crowd. After some fighting the Bastille was surrendered. De Launay was stabbed to death, decapitated and his head paraded on a pike. The capital was in the hands of the revolutionaries. 

Louis XVI, meanwhile, was warned by his generals that his soldiers were unreliable and might not disperse the crowds in Paris. Louis was forced to order his regiments to stand down and recalled Necker on 16 July. On 17 July he visited Paris with the National Assembly. At the city hall he was handed a tricolour cockade which blended the red and blue colours of the city of Paris with the white of the Bourbon monarch.

Although Paris was, briefly, calm, unrest had now spread to the provinces and countryside. The National Assembly passed a series of laws in an effort to provide stability. On 4 August noble deputies vied with each other to renounce their noble privileges. On 11 August the Assembly announced the destruction of the ‘feudal regime’. The Church tithe was also abolished, a decision that would sow the seeds for the later radicalisation of the Revolution and bloody conflict.

Most famously, on 26 August the Assembly approved the 17 articles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This document was to have a lasting impacting. Both the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the European Convention on Human Rights (1953) drew on the substance and even the wording of that earlier document.

Despite these reforms the National Assembly struggled to maintain order in Paris. After a brief period of stability, bread price began to rise again leading to mounting discontent. At the same time, the King voiced reservations about the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Rumours reached Paris of a banquet given by the King’s Bodyguard in the royal family’s honour at which the tricolour cockade had been trampled.

On 5 October market women gathered at the city hall to demand action on bread prices. Possibly orchestrated by the Duke of Orleans and the Comte de Mirabeau an armed crowd set out for Versailles to press their case on the National Assembly. A deputation met with the King to demand action on prices. On 6 October a small group of protestors broke into the palace and invaded the Queen’s apartments. Marie-Antoinette escaped just in time, but Lafayette, now commander of the National Guard, persuaded the royal family that the crowd would only disperse if addressed directly. The royal family addressed the crowd from a balcony, but the crowd demanded they return with them to Paris. His authority crumbling Louis XVI had no choice but to acquiesce. The King, his family and the National Assembly returned to Paris where they could be watched and influenced by the people of the city.

  Conclusion

The so-called October Days marked the end of what has often been described as the ‘liberal’ phase of the French Revolution. Thereafter, the Revolution would be characterised by growing levels of violence and factionalism. There were multiple causes to the French Revolution. France was not unique in facing difficult economic, social and political conditions in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. All Europe states faced similar challenges. Britain faced rebellion in America. The Dutch Republic had its own revolutionary movement. There were peasant uprisings in Central Europe too. It was, however, the particular constellation of these challenges in France that lead to the Revolution. Where to put the emphasis, be it on the emergence of a particular political culture or on the polarisation of society due to demographic and economic change remains at the core of debate today.

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french revolution failure essay

The execution of Robespierre and his accomplices, 17 July 1794 (10 Thermidor Year II). Robespierre is depicted holding a handkerchief and dressed in a brown jacket in the cart immediately to the left of the scaffold. Photo courtesy the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris

Vive la révolution!

Must radical political change generate uncontainable violence the french revolution is both a cautionary and inspiring tale.

by Jeremy Popkin   + BIO

If the French Revolution of 1789 was such an important event, visitors to France’s capital city of Paris often wonder, why can’t they find any trace of the Bastille, the medieval fortress whose storming on 14 July 1789 was the revolution’s most dramatic moment? Determined to destroy what they saw as a symbol of tyranny, the ‘victors of the Bastille’ immediately began demolishing the structure. Even the column in the middle of the busy Place de la Bastille isn’t connected to 1789: it commemorates those who died in another uprising a generation later, the ‘July Revolution’ of 1830.

The legacy of the French Revolution is not found in physical monuments, but in the ideals of liberty, equality and justice that still inspire modern democracies. More ambitious than the American revolutionaries of 1776, the French in 1789 were not just fighting for their own national independence: they wanted to establish principles that would lay the basis for freedom for human beings everywhere. The United States Declaration of Independence briefly mentioned rights to ‘liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness’, without explaining what they meant or how they were to be realised. The French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen’ spelled out the rights that comprised liberty and equality and outlined a system of participatory government that would empower citizens to protect their own rights.

Much more openly than the Americans, the French revolutionaries recognised that the principles of liberty and equality they had articulated posed fundamental questions about such issues as the status of women and the justification of slavery. In France, unlike the US, these questions were debated heatedly and openly. Initially, the revolutionaries decided that ‘nature’ denied women political rights and that ‘imperious necessity’ dictated the maintenance of slavery in France’s overseas colonies, whose 800,000 enslaved labourers outnumbered the 670,000 in the 13 American states in 1789.

As the revolution proceeded, however, its legislators took more radical steps. A law redefining marriage and legalising divorce in 1792 granted women equal rights to sue for separation and child custody; by that time, women had formed their own political clubs, some were openly serving in the French army, and Olympe de Gouges’s eloquent ‘Declaration of the Rights of Woman’ had insisted that they should be allowed to vote and hold office. Women achieved so much influence in the streets of revolutionary Paris that they drove male legislators to try to outlaw their activities. At almost the same time, in 1794, faced with a massive uprising among the enslaved blacks in France’s most valuable Caribbean colony, Saint-Domingue, the French National Convention abolished slavery and made its former victims full citizens. Black men were seated as deputies to the French legislature and, by 1796, the black general Toussaint Louverture was the official commander-in-chief of French forces in Saint-Domingue, which would become the independent nation of Haiti in 1804.

The French Revolution’s initiatives concerning women’s rights and slavery are just two examples of how the French revolutionaries experimented with radical new ideas about the meaning of liberty and equality that are still relevant. But the French Revolution is not just important today because it took such radical steps to broaden the definitions of liberty and equality. The movement that began in 1789 also showed the dangers inherent in trying to remake an entire society overnight. The French revolutionaries were the first to grant the right to vote to all adult men, but they were also the first to grapple with democracy’s shadow side, demagogic populism, and with the effects of an explosion of ‘new media’ that transformed political communication. The revolution saw the first full-scale attempt to impose secular ideas in the face of vocal opposition from citizens who proclaimed themselves defenders of religion. In 1792, revolutionary France became the first democracy to launch a war to spread its values. A major consequence of that war was the creation of the first modern totalitarian dictatorship, the rule of the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror. Five years after the end of the Terror, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had gained fame as a result of the war, led the first modern coup d’état , justifying it, like so many strongmen since, by claiming that only an authoritarian regime could guarantee social order.

The fact that Napoleon reversed the revolutionaries’ expansion of women’s rights and reintroduced slavery in the French colonies reminds us that he, like so many of his imitators in the past two centuries, defined ‘social order’ as a rejection of any expansive definition of liberty and equality. Napoleon also abolished meaningful elections, ended freedom of the press, and restored the public status of the Catholic Church. Determined to keep and even expand the revolutionaries’ foreign conquests, he continued the war that they had begun, but French armies now fought to create an empire, dropping any pretence of bringing freedom to other peoples.

T he relevance of the French Revolution to present-day debates is the reason why I decided to write A New World Begins: The History of the French Revolution (2020), the first comprehensive English-language account of that event for general readers in more than 30 years. Having spent my career researching and teaching the history of the French Revolution, however, I know very well that it was more than an idealistic crusade for human rights. If the fall of the Bastille remains an indelible symbol of aspirations for freedom, the other universally recognised symbol of the French Revolution, the guillotine, reminds us that the movement was also marked by violence. The American Founding Fathers whose refusal to consider granting rights to women or ending slavery we now rightly question did have the good sense not to let their differences turn into murderous feuds; none of them had to reflect, as the French legislator Pierre Vergniaud did on the eve of his execution, that their movement, ‘like Saturn, is devouring its own children’.

It is hard to avoid concluding that there was a relationship between the radicalism of the ideas that surfaced during the French Revolution and the violence that marked the movement. In my book, I introduce readers to a character, the ‘Père Duchêne’, who came to represent the populist impulses of the revolution. Nowadays, we would call the Père Duchêne a meme. He was not a real person: instead, he was a character familiar to audiences in Paris’s popular theatres, where he functioned as a representative of the country’s ordinary people. Once the revolution began, a number of journalists began publishing pamphlets supposedly written by the Père Duchêne, in which they demanded that the National Assembly do more to benefit the poor. The small newspapers that used his name carried a crude woodcut on their front page showing the Père Duchêne in rough workers’ clothing. Holding a hatchet over his head, with two pistols stuck in his belt and a musket at his side, the Père Duchêne was a visual symbol of the association between the revolution and popular violence.

The elites had enriched themselves at the expense of the people, and needed to be forced to share their power

Although his crude language and his constant threat to resort to violence alienated the more moderate revolutionaries, the Père Duchêne was the living embodiment of one of the basic principles incorporated in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. The sixth article of that document affirmed that ‘the law is the expression of the general will’ and promised that ‘all citizens have the right to participate personally, or through their representatives, in its establishment’. The fictitious Père Duchêne’s message to readers, no matter how poor and uneducated they might be, was that an ordinary person could claim a voice in politics.

french revolution failure essay

Like present-day populists, the Père Duchêne had a simple political programme. The elites who ruled France before 1789 had enriched themselves at the expense of the people. They needed to be forced to share their power and wealth. When the revolution did not immediately improve the lives of the masses, the Père Duchêne blamed the movement’s more moderate leaders, accusing them of exploiting it for their own benefit. The journalists who wrote under the name of the Père Duchêne used colourful language laced with obscenities; they insisted that their vulgarity showed that they were ‘telling it like it is’. Their tone was vindictive and vengeful; they wanted to see their targets humiliated and, in many cases, sent to the guillotine. The most successful Père Duchêne journalist, Jacques-René Hébert, built a political career through his success in using the media. At the height of the Reign of Terror, he pushed through the creation of a ‘revolutionary army’ controlled by his friends to intimidate enemies of the revolution, and seemed on the verge of taking over the government.

Maximilien Robespierre and his more middle-class colleagues on the Committee of Public Safety feared that Hébert’s populist movement might drive them from power. They decided that they had no choice but to confront Hébert and his followers, even if it meant alienating the ‘base’ of ordinary Paris residents, the famous sans-culottes . Using the same smear tactics that the Père Duchêne had perfected, they accused Hébert of dubious intrigues with foreigners and other questionable activities. Like many bullies, Hébert quickly collapsed when he found himself up against serious opponents determined to fight back; the crowd that cheered his dispatch to the guillotine in March 1794 was larger than for many of the executions that he had incited. But he and the other Père Duchênes, as well as their female counterparts, the Mère Duchênes who flourished at some points in the revolution, had done much to turn the movement from a high-minded crusade for human rights into a free-for-all in which only the loudest voices could make themselves heard.

T he ambivalent legacy of the French Revolution’s democratic impulse, so vividly brought to life in the figure of the Père Duchêne, underlines the way in which the movement begun in 1789 remains both an inspiration and a warning for us today. In the more than 200 years since the storming of the Bastille, no one has formulated the human yearning for freedom and justice more eloquently than the French revolutionaries, and no one has shown more clearly the dangers that a one-sided pursuit of those goals can create. The career of the most famous of the radical French revolutionaries, Robespierre, is the most striking demonstration of that fact.

Robespierre is remembered because he was the most eloquent defender of the dictatorship created during the revolution’s most radical period, the months known as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre’s speech on the principles of revolutionary government, delivered on 25 December 1793, made an uncompromising case for the legitimacy of extreme measures to defeat those he called ‘the enemies of liberty’. Paradoxically, he insisted, the only way to create a society in which citizens could exercise the individual freedoms promised in the Declaration of Rights was to suspend those rights until the revolution’s opponents were conclusively defeated.

Robespierre’s colleagues on the all-powerful Committee of Public Safety chose him to defend their policies because he was more than just a spokesman for harsh measures against their opponents. From the time he first appeared on the scene as one of the 1,200 deputies to the Estates General summoned by Louis XVI in May 1789, his fellow legislators recognised the young provincial lawyer’s intelligence and his unswerving commitment to the ideals of democracy. The renegade aristocrat the comte de Mirabeau, the most prominent spokesman of the revolutionary ‘patriots’ in 1789 but an often cynical pragmatist, quickly sized up his colleague: ‘That man will go far, because he believes everything he says.’ Unlike the Père Duchêne, Robespierre always dressed carefully and spoke in pure, educated French. Other revolutionary leaders, like the rabblerousing orator Georges Danton, were happy to join insurrectionary crowds in the streets; Robespierre never personally took part in any of the French Revolution’s explosions of violence. Yet no one remains more associated with the violence of the Reign of Terror than Robespierre.

To reduce Robespierre’s legacy to his association with the Terror is to overlook the importance of his role as a one of history’s most articulate proponents of political democracy. When the majority of the deputies in France’s revolutionary National Assembly tried to restrict full political rights to the wealthier male members of the population, Robespierre reminded them of the Declaration of Rights’ assertion that freedom meant the right to have a voice in making the laws that citizens had to obey. ‘Is the law the expression of the general will, when the greater number of those for whom it is made cannot contribute to its formation?’ he asked. Long before our present-day debates about income inequality, he denounced a system that put real political power in the hands of the wealthy: ‘And what an aristocracy! The most unbearable of all, that of the rich.’ In the early years of the revolution, Robespierre firmly defended freedom of the press and called for the abolition of the death penalty. When white colonists insisted that France could not survive economically without slavery, Robespierre cried out: ‘Perish the colonies rather than abandon a principle!’

The majority of the population was not ready to embrace a radical secularist movement

Explaining how Robespierre, the principled defender of liberty and equality, became in just a few short years the leading advocate of a system of revolutionary government that foreshadowed the 20th century’s totalitarian dictatorships is perhaps the greatest challenge in defending the legacy of the French Revolution. Robespierre was no innocent, and in the last months of his short political career – he was only 36 when he died – his clumsy confrontations with his colleagues made him a dangerous number of enemies. Unlike the Père Duchêne, however, Robespierre never embraced violence as an end in itself, and a close examination of his career shows that he was often trying to find ways to limit the damage caused by policies he had not originally endorsed. In 1792, when most of his fellow Jacobin radicals embraced the call for a revolutionary war to ensure France’s security by toppling the hostile monarchies surrounding it, Robespierre warned against the illusion that other peoples would turn against their own governments to support the French. ‘No one loves armed missionaries,’ he insisted, a warning that recent US leaders might have done well to heed.

When radicals such as Hébert started a campaign to ‘de-Christianise’ France, in order to silence opposition to the movement’s effort to reform the Catholic Church and sell off its property for the benefit of the revolution, Robespierre reined them in. He recognised that the majority of the population was not ready to embrace a radical secularist movement bent on turning churches into ‘temples of reason’ and putting up signs in cemeteries calling death ‘an eternal sleep’. Robespierre proposed instead the introduction of a purified and simplified ‘cult of the Supreme Being’, which he thought believers could embrace without abandoning their faith in a higher power and their belief in the immortality of the soul.

french revolution failure essay

Robespierre knew that many of the revolution’s bitterest opponents were motivated by loyalty to the Catholic Church. The revolution had not begun as an anti-religious movement. Under the rules used in the elections to what became the French National Assembly in 1789, a fourth of all the deputies were clergy from the Catholic Church, an institution so woven into the fabric of the population’s life that hardly anyone could imagine its disappearance. Criticism that the Church had grown too wealthy and that many of its beliefs failed to measure up to the standards of reason promoted by the Enlightenment was widespread, even among priests, but most hoped to see religion, like every other aspect of French life, ‘regenerated’ by the impulses of the revolution, not destroyed.

The revolutionaries’ confrontation with the Church began, not with an argument about beliefs, but because of the urgent need to meet the crisis in government revenues that had forced king Louis XVI to summon a national assembly in the first place. Determined to avoid a chaotic public bankruptcy, and reluctant to raise taxes on the population, the legislators decided, four months after the storming of the Bastille, to put the vast property of the Catholic Church ‘at the disposition of the nation’. Many Catholic clergy, especially underpaid parish priests who resented the luxury in which their aristocratic bishops lived, supported the expropriation of Church property and the idea that the government, which now took over the responsibility for funding the institution, had the right to reform it. Others, however, saw the reform of the Church as a cover for an Enlightenment-inspired campaign against their faith, and much of the lay population supported them. In one region of France, peasants formed a ‘Catholic and Royal Army’ and revolted against the revolution that had supposedly been carried out for their benefit. Women, who found in the cult of Mary and female saints a source of psychological support, were often in the forefront of this religiously inspired resistance to the revolution.

To supporters of the revolution, this religious opposition to their movement looked like a nationwide conspiracy preventing progress. The increasingly harsh measures taken to quell resistance to Church reform prefigured the policies of the Reign of Terror. The plunge into war in the spring of 1792, justified in part to show domestic opponents of the revolution that they could not hope for any support from abroad, allowed the revolutionaries to define the disruptions caused by diehard Catholics as forms of treason. Suspicions that Louis XVI, who had accepted the demand for a declaration of war, and his wife Marie-Antoinette were secretly hoping for a quick French defeat that would allow foreign armies to restore their powers led to their imprisonment and execution.

A ccusations of foreign meddling in revolutionary politics, a so-called foreign plot that supposedly involved the payment of large sums of money to leading deputies to promote special interests and undermine French democracy, were another source of the fears that fuelled the Reign of Terror. Awash in a sea of ‘fake news’, political leaders and ordinary citizens lost any sense of perspective, and became increasingly ready to believe even the most far-fetched accusations. Robespierre, whose personal honesty had earned him the nickname ‘The Incorruptible’, was particularly quick to suspect any of his colleagues who seemed ready to tolerate those who enriched themselves from the revolution or had contacts with foreigners. Rather than any lust for power, it was Robespierre’s weakness for seeing any disagreement with him as a sign of corruption that led him to support the elimination of numerous other revolutionary leaders, including figures, such as Danton, who had once been his close allies. Other, more cynical politicians joined Robespierre in expanding the Reign of Terror, calculating that their own best chance of survival was to strike down their rivals before they themselves could be targeted.

Although the toxic politics of its most radical phase did much to discredit the revolution, the ‘Reign of Terror’, which lasted little more than one year out of 10 between the storming of the Bastille and Napoleon’s coup d’état , was also a time of important experiments in democracy. While thousands of ordinary French men and women found themselves unjustly imprisoned during the Terror, thousands of others – admittedly, only men – held public office for the first time. The same revolutionary legislature that backed Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety took the first steps toward creating a modern national welfare system and passed plans for a comprehensive system of public education. Revolutionary France became the first country to create a system of universal military conscription and to promise ordinary soldiers that, if they proved themselves on the battlefield, there was no rank to which they could not aspire. The idea that society needed a privileged leadership class in order to function was challenged as never before.

Among the men from modest backgrounds who rose to positions they could never have attained before 1789 was a young artillery officer whose strong Corsican accent marked him as a provincial: Napoleon. A mere lieutenant when the Bastille was stormed, he was promoted to general just four years later, after impressing Robespierre’s brother Augustin with his skill in defeating a British invasion force on France’s southern coast. Five years after the overthrow of Robespierre on 27 July 1794 – or 9 Thermidor Year II, according to the new calendar that the revolutionaries had adopted to underline their total break with the past – Napoleon joined with a number of revolutionary politicians to overthrow the republican regime that had come out of the revolution and replace it with what soon became a system of one-man rule. Napoleon’s seizure of power has been cited ever since as evidence that the French Revolution, unlike the American, was essentially a failure. The French revolutionaries, it is often said, had tried to make too many changes too quickly, and the movement’s violence had alienated too much of the population to allow it to succeed.

To accept this verdict on the French Revolution is to ignore a crucial but little-known aspect of its legacy: the way in which the movement’s own leaders, determined to escape from the destructive politics of the Reign of Terror after Robespierre’s death, worked to ‘exit from the Terror’, as one historian has put it, and create a stable form of constitutional government. The years that history books call the period of the ‘Thermidorian reaction’ and the period of the Directory, from July 1794 to November 1799, comprise half of the decade of the French Revolution. They provide an instructive lesson in how a society can try to put itself back on an even keel after an experience during which all the ordinary rules of politics have been broken.

The post-Robespierre republic was brought down by the disloyalty of its own political elite

One simple lesson from the post-Terror years of the revolution that many subsequent politicians have learned is to blame all mistakes on one person. In death, Robespierre was built up into a ‘tiger thirsty for blood’ who had supposedly wanted to make himself a dictator or even king. All too aware that, in reality, thousands of others had helped to make the revolutionary government function, however, Robespierre’s successors found themselves under pressure to bring at least some of the Terror’s other leaders to justice. At times, the process escaped from control, as when angry crowds massacred political prisoners in cities in the south during a ‘white terror’ in 1795. On the whole, however, the republican leaders after 1794 succeeded in convincing the population that the excesses of the Terror would not be repeated, even if some of the men in power had been as deeply implicated in those excesses as Robespierre.

For five years after Robespierre’s execution, France lived under a quasi-constitutional system, in which laws were debated by a bicameral legislature and discussed in a relatively free press. On several occasions, it is true, the Directory, the five-man governing council, ‘corrected’ the election results to ensure its own hold on power, undermining the authority of the constitution, but the mass arrests and arbitrary trials that had marked the Reign of Terror were not repeated. The Directory’s policies enabled the country’s economy to recover after the disorder of the revolutionary years. Harsh toward the poor who had identified themselves with the Père Duchêne, it consolidated the educational reforms started during the Terror. Napoleon would build on the Directory’s success in establishing a modern, centralised system of administration. He himself was one of the many military leaders who enabled France to defeat its continental enemies and force them to recognise its territorial gains.

Although legislative debates in this period reflected a swing against the expanded rights granted to women earlier in the revolution, the laws passed earlier were not repealed. Despite a heated campaign waged by displaced plantation-owners, the thermidorians and the Directory maintained the rights granted to the freed blacks in the French colonies. Black men from Saint-Domingue and Guadeloupe were elected as deputies and took part in parliamentary debates. In Saint-Domingue, the black general Louverture commanded French forces that defeated a British invasion; by 1798, he had been named the governor of the colony. His power was so great that the American government, by this time locked in a ‘quasi-war’ with France, negotiated directly with him, hoping to bring pressure on Paris to end the harassment of American merchant ships in the Caribbean.

The post-Robespierre French republic was brought down, more than anything else, by the disloyalty of its own political elite. Even before Napoleon unexpectedly returned from the expedition to Egypt on which he had been dispatched in mid-1798, many of the regime’s key figures had decided that the constitution they themselves had helped to draft after Robespierre’s fall provided too many opportunities for rivals to challenge them. What Napoleon found in the fall of 1799 was not a country on the verge of chaos but a crowd of politicians competing with each other to plan coups to make their positions permanent. He was able to choose the allies who struck him as most likely to serve his purposes, knowing that none of them had the popularity or the charisma to hold their own against him once the Directory had been overthrown.

One cannot simply conclude, then, that the history of the French Revolution proves that radical attempts to change society are doomed to failure, or that Napoleon’s dictatorship was the inevitable destination at which the revolution was doomed to arrive. But neither can one simply hail the French movement as a forerunner of modern ideas about liberty and equality. In their pursuit of those goals, the French revolutionaries discovered how vehemently some people – not just privileged elites but also many ordinary men and women – could resist those ideas, and how dangerous the impatience of their own supporters could become. Robespierre’s justification of dictatorial methods to overcome the resistance to the revolution had a certain logic behind it, but it opened the door to many abuses.

Despite all its violence and contradictions, however, the French Revolution remains meaningful for us today. To ignore or reject the legacy of its calls for liberty and equality amounts to legitimising authoritarian ideologies or arguments for the inherent inequality of certain groups of people. If we want to live in a world characterised by respect for fundamental individual rights, we need to learn the lessons, both positive and negative, of the great effort to promote those ideals that tore down the Bastille in 1789.

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History Cooperative

French Revolution: History, Timeline, Causes, and Outcomes

The French Revolution, a seismic event that reshaped the contours of political power and societal norms, began in 1789, not merely as a chapter in history but as a dramatic upheaval that would influence the course of human events far beyond its own time and borders.

It was more than a clash of ideologies; it was a profound transformation that questioned the very foundations of monarchical rule and aristocratic privilege, leading to the rise of republicanism and the concept of citizenship.

The causes of this revolution were as complex as its outcomes were far-reaching, stemming from a confluence of economic strife, social inequalities, and a hunger for political reform.

The outcomes of the French Revolution, embedded in the realms of political thought, civil rights, and societal structures, continue to resonate, offering invaluable insights into the power and potential of collective action for change.

Table of Contents

Time and Location

The French Revolution, a cornerstone event in the annals of history, ignited in 1789, a time when Europe was dominated by monarchical rule and the vestiges of feudalism. This epochal period, which spanned a decade until the late 1790s, witnessed profound social, political, and economic transformations that not only reshaped France but also sent shockwaves across the continent and beyond.

Paris, the heart of France, served as the epicenter of revolutionary activity , where iconic events such as the storming of the Bastille became symbols of the struggle for freedom. Yet, the revolution was not confined to the city’s limits; its influence permeated through every corner of France, from bustling urban centers to serene rural areas, each witnessing the unfolding drama of revolution in unique ways.

The revolution consisted of many complex factions, each representing a distinct set of interests and ideologies. Initially, the conflict arose between the Third Estate, which included a diverse group from peasants and urban laborers to the bourgeoisie, and the First and Second Estates, made up of the clergy and the nobility, respectively.

The Third Estate sought to dismantle the archaic social structure that relegated them to the burden of taxation while denying them political representation and rights. Their demands for reform and equality found resonance across a society strained by economic distress and the autocratic rule of the monarchy.

As the revolution evolved, so too did the nature of the conflict. The initial unity within the Third Estate fractured, giving rise to factions such as the Jacobins and Girondins, who, despite sharing a common revolutionary zeal, diverged sharply in their visions for France’s future.

The Jacobins , with figures like Maximilien Robespierre at the helm, advocated for radical measures, including the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of a republic, while the Girondins favored a more moderate approach.

The sans-culottes , representing the militant working-class Parisians, further complicated the revolutionary landscape with their demands for immediate economic relief and political reforms.

The revolution’s adversaries were not limited to internal factions; monarchies throughout Europe viewed the republic with suspicion and hostility. Fearing the spread of revolutionary fervor within their own borders, European powers such as Austria, Prussia, and Britain engaged in military confrontations with France, aiming to restore the French monarchy and stem the tide of revolution.

These external threats intensified the internal strife, fueling the revolution’s radical phase and propelling it towards its eventual conclusion with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, who capitalized on the chaos to establish his own rule.

READ MORE: How Did Napoleon Die: Stomach Cancer, Poison, or Something Else?

Causes of the French Revolution

The French Revolution’s roots are deeply embedded in a confluence of political, social, economic, and intellectual factors that, over time, eroded the foundations of the Ancien Régime and set the stage for revolutionary change.

At the heart of the revolution were grievances that transcended class boundaries, uniting much of the nation in a quest for profound transformation.

Economic Hardship and Social Inequality

A critical catalyst for the revolution was France’s dire economic condition. Fiscal mismanagement, costly involvement in foreign wars (notably the American Revolutionary War), and an antiquated tax system placed an unbearable strain on the populace, particularly the Third Estate, which bore the brunt of taxation while being denied equitable representation.

Simultaneously, extravagant spending by Louis XVI and his predecessors further drained the national treasury, exacerbating the financial crisis.

The social structure of France, rigidly divided into three estates, underscored profound inequalities. The First (clergy) and Second (nobility) Estates enjoyed significant privileges, including exemption from many taxes, which contrasted starkly with the hardships faced by the Third Estate, comprising peasants , urban workers, and a rising bourgeoisie.

This disparity fueled resentment and a growing demand for social and economic justice.

Enlightenment Ideals

The Enlightenment , a powerful intellectual movement sweeping through Europe, profoundly influenced the revolutionary spirit. Philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu criticized traditional structures of power and authority, advocating for principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Their writings inspired a new way of thinking about governance, society, and the rights of individuals, sowing the seeds of revolution among a populace eager for change.

Political Crisis and the Estates-General

The immediate catalyst for the French Revolution was deeply rooted in a political crisis, underscored by the French monarchy’s chronic financial woes. King Louis XVI, facing dire fiscal insolvency, sought to break the deadlock through the convocation of the Estates-General in 1789, marking the first assembly of its kind since 1614.

This critical move, intended to garner support for financial reforms, unwittingly set the stage for widespread political upheaval. It provided the Third Estate, representing the common people of France, with an unprecedented opportunity to voice their longstanding grievances and demand a more significant share of political authority.

The Third Estate, comprising a vast majority of the population but long marginalized in the political framework of the Ancien Régime, seized this moment to assert its power. Their transformation into the National Assembly was a monumental shift, symbolizing a rejection of the existing social and political order.

The catalyst for this transformation was their exclusion from the Estates-General meeting, leading them to gather in a nearby tennis court. There, they took the historic Tennis Court Oath, vowing not to disperse until France had a new constitution.

This act of defiance was not just a political statement but a clear indication of the revolutionaries’ resolve to overhaul French society.

Amidst this burgeoning crisis, the personal life of Marie Antoinette , Louis XVI’s queen, became a focal point of public scrutiny and scandal. 

Married to Louis at the tender age of fourteen, Marie Antoinette, the youngest daughter of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I, was known for her lavish lifestyle and the preferential treatment she accorded her friends and relatives.

READ MORE: Roman Emperors in Order: The Complete List from Caesar to the Fall of Rome

Her disregard for traditional court fashion and etiquette, along with her perceived extravagance, made her an easy target for public criticism and ridicule. Popular songs in Parisian cafés and a flourishing genre of pornographic literature vilified the queen, accusing her of infidelity, corruption, and disloyalty.

Such depictions, whether grounded in truth or fabricated, fueled the growing discontent among the populace, further complicating the already tense political atmosphere.

The intertwining of personal scandals with the broader political crisis highlighted the deep-seated issues within the French monarchy and aristocracy, contributing to the revolutionary fervor.

As the political crisis deepened, the actions of the Third Estate and the controversies surrounding Marie Antoinette exemplified the widespread desire for change and the rejection of the Ancient Régime’s corruption and excesses.

Key Concepts, Events, and People of the French Revolution

As the Estates General convened in 1789, little did the world know that this gathering would mark the beginning of a revolution that would forever alter the course of history.

Through the rise and fall of factions, the clash of ideologies, and the leadership of remarkable individuals, this era reshaped not only France but also set a precedent for future generations.

From the storming of the Bastille to the establishment of the Directory, each event and figure played a crucial role in crafting a new vision of governance and social equality.

Estates General

When the Estates General was summoned in May 1789, it marked the beginning of a series of events that would catalyze the French Revolution. Initially intended as a means for King Louis XVI to address the financial crisis by securing support for tax reforms, the assembly instead became a flashpoint for broader grievances.

Representing the three estates of French society—the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners—the Estates General highlighted the profound disparities and simmering tensions between these groups.

The Third Estate, comprising 98% of the population but traditionally having the least power, seized the moment to push for more significant reforms, challenging the very foundations of the Ancient Régime.

The deadlock over voting procedures—where the Third Estate demanded votes be counted by head rather than by estate—led to its members declaring themselves the National Assembly, an act of defiance that effectively inaugurated the revolution.

This bold step, coupled with the subsequent Tennis Court Oath where they vowed not to disperse until a new constitution was created, underscored a fundamental shift in authority from the monarchy to the people, setting a precedent for popular sovereignty that would resonate throughout the revolution.

Rise of the Third Estate

The Rise of the Third Estate underscores the growing power and assertiveness of the common people of France. Fueled by economic hardship, social inequality, and inspired by Enlightenment ideals, this diverse group—encompassing peasants, urban workers, and the bourgeoisie—began to challenge the existing social and political order.

Their transformation from a marginalized majority into the National Assembly marked a radical departure from traditional power structures, asserting their role as legitimate representatives of the French people. This period was characterized by significant political mobilization and the formation of popular societies and clubs, which played a crucial role in spreading revolutionary ideas and organizing action.

This newfound empowerment of the Third Estate culminated in key revolutionary acts, such as the storming of the Bastille in July 1789, a symbol of royal tyranny. This event not only demonstrated the power of popular action but also signaled the irreversible nature of the revolutionary movement.

The rise of the Third Estate paved the way for the abolition of feudal privileges and the drafting of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen , foundational texts that sought to establish a new social and political order based on equality, liberty, and fraternity.

A People’s Monarchy

The concept of a People’s Monarchy emerged as a compromise in the early stages of the French Revolution, reflecting the initial desire among many revolutionaries to retain the monarchy within a constitutional framework.

This period was marked by King Louis XVI’s grudging acceptance of the National Assembly’s authority and the enactment of significant reforms, including the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and the Constitution of 1791, which established a limited monarchy and sought to redistribute power more equitably.

However, this attempt to balance revolutionary demands with monarchical tradition was fraught with difficulties, as mutual distrust between the king and the revolutionaries continued to escalate.

The failure of the People’s Monarchy was precipitated by the Flight to Varennes in June 1791, when Louis XVI attempted to escape France and rally foreign support for the restoration of his absolute power.

This act of betrayal eroded any remaining support for the monarchy among the populace and the Assembly, leading to increased calls for the establishment of a republic.

The people’s experiment with a constitutional monarchy thus served to highlight the irreconcilable differences between the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality and the traditional monarchical order, setting the stage for the republic’s proclamation.

Birth of a Republic

The proclamation of the First French Republic in September 1792 represented a radical departure from centuries of monarchical rule, embodying the revolutionary ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

This transition was catalyzed by escalating political tensions, military challenges, and the radicalization of the revolution, particularly after the king’s failed flight and perceived betrayal.

The Republic’s birth was a moment of immense optimism and aspiration, as it promised to reshape French society on the principles of democratic governance and civic equality. It also marked the beginning of a new calendar, symbolic of the revolutionaries’ desire to break completely with the past and start anew.

However, the early years of the Republic were marked by significant challenges, including internal divisions, economic struggles, and threats from monarchist powers in Europe.

These pressures necessitated the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror, measures aimed at defending the revolution but which also led to extreme political repression.

Reign of Terror

The Reign of Terror, from September 1793 to July 1794, remains one of the most controversial and bloodiest periods of the French Revolution. Under the auspices of the Committee of Public Safety, led by figures such as Maximilien Robespierre, the French government adopted radical measures to purge the nation of perceived enemies of the revolution.

This period saw the widespread use of the guillotine , with thousands executed on charges of counter-revolutionary activities or mere suspicion of disloyalty. The Terror aimed to consolidate revolutionary gains and protect the nascent Republic from internal and external threats, but its legacy is marred by the extremity of its actions and the climate of fear it engendered.

The end of the Terror came with the Thermidorian Reaction on 27th July 1794 (9th Thermidor Year II, according to the revolutionary calendar), which resulted in the arrest and execution of Robespierre and his closest allies.

This marked a significant turning point, leading to the dismantling of the Committee of Public Safety and the gradual relaxation of emergency measures. The aftermath of the Terror reflected a society grappling with the consequences of its radical actions, seeking stability after years of upheaval but still committed to the revolutionary ideals of liberty and equality .

Thermidorians and the Directory

Following the Thermidorian Reaction , the political landscape of France underwent significant changes, leading to the establishment of the Directory in November 1795.

This new government, a five-member executive body, was intended to provide stability and moderate the excesses of the previous radical phase. The Directory period was characterized by a mix of conservative and revolutionary policies, aimed at consolidating the Republic and addressing the economic and social issues that had fueled the revolution.

Despite its efforts to navigate the challenges of governance, the Directory faced significant opposition from royalists on the right and Jacobins on the left, leading to a period of political instability and corruption.

The Directory’s inability to resolve these tensions and its growing unpopularity set the stage for its downfall. The coup of 18 Brumaire in November 1799, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, ended the Directory and established the Consulate, marking the end of the revolutionary government and the beginning of Napoleonic rule.

While the Directory failed to achieve lasting stability, it played a crucial role in the transition from radical revolution to the establishment of a more authoritarian regime, highlighting the complexities of revolutionary governance and the challenges of fulfilling the ideals of 1789.

French Revolution End and Outcome: Napoleon’s Rise

The revolution’s end is often marked by Napoleon’s coup d’état on 18 Brumaire , which not only concluded a decade of political instability and social unrest but also ushered in a new era of governance under his rule.

This period, while stabilizing France and bringing much-needed order, seemed to contradict the revolution’s initial aims of establishing a democratic republic grounded in the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Napoleon’s rise to power, culminating in his coronation as Emperor, symbolizes a complex conclusion to the revolutionary narrative, intertwining the fulfillment and betrayal of its foundational ideals.

Evaluating the revolution’s success requires a nuanced perspective. On one hand, it dismantled the Ancien Régime, abolished feudalism, and set forth the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, laying the cornerstone for modern democracy and human rights. 

These achievements signify profound societal and legal transformations that resonated well beyond France’s borders, influencing subsequent movements for freedom and equality globally.

On the other hand, the revolution’s trajectory through the Reign of Terror and the subsequent rise of a military dictatorship under Napoleon raises questions about the cost of these advances and the ultimate realization of the revolution’s goals.

The French Revolution’s conclusion with Napoleon Bonaparte’s ascension to power is emblematic of its complex legacy. This period not only marked the cessation of years of turmoil but also initiated a new chapter in French governance, characterized by stability and reform yet marked by a departure from the revolution’s original democratic aspirations.

The Significance of the French Revolution

The French Revolution holds a place of prominence in the annals of history, celebrated for its profound impact on the course of modern civilization. Its fame stems not only from the dramatic events and transformative ideas it unleashed but also from its enduring influence on political thought, social reform, and the global struggle for justice and equality.

This period of intense upheaval and radical change challenged the very foundations of society, dismantling centuries-old institutions and laying the groundwork for a new era defined by the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

At its core, the French Revolution was a manifestation of human aspiration towards freedom and self-determination, a vivid illustration of the power of collective action to reshape the world. It introduced revolutionary concepts of citizenship and rights that have since become the bedrock of democratic societies.

Moreover, the revolution’s ripple effects were felt worldwide, inspiring a wave of independence movements and revolutions across Europe, Latin America, and beyond. Its legacy is a testament to the idea that people have the power to overthrow oppressive systems and construct a more equitable society.

The revolution’s significance also lies in its contributions to political and social thought. It was a living laboratory for ideas that were radical at the time, such as the separation of church and state, the abolition of feudal privileges, and the establishment of a constitution to govern the rights and duties of the French citizens.

These concepts, debated and implemented with varying degrees of success during the revolution, have become fundamental to modern governance.

Furthermore, the French Revolution is famous for its dramatic and symbolic events, from the storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror, which have etched themselves into the collective memory of humanity.

These events highlight the complexities and contradictions of the revolutionary process, underscoring the challenges inherent in profound societal transformation.

Key Figures of the French Revolution

The French Revolutions were painted by the actions and ideologies of several key figures whose contributions defined the era. These individuals, with their diverse roles and perspectives, were central in navigating the revolution’s trajectory, capturing the complexities and contradictions of this tumultuous period.

Maximilien Robespierre , often synonymous with the Reign of Terror, was a figure of paradoxes. A lawyer and politician, his early advocacy for the rights of the common people and opposition to absolute monarchy marked him as a champion of liberty.

However, as a leader of the Committee of Public Safety, his name became associated with the radical phase of the revolution, characterized by extreme measures in the name of safeguarding the republic. His eventual downfall and execution reflect the revolution’s capacity for self-consumption.

Georges Danton , another prominent revolutionary leader, played a crucial role in the early stages of the revolution. Known for his oratory skills and charismatic leadership, Danton was instrumental in the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of the First French Republic.

Unlike Robespierre, Danton is often remembered for his pragmatism and efforts to moderate the revolution’s excesses, which ultimately led to his execution during the Reign of Terror, highlighting the volatile nature of revolutionary politics.

Louis XVI, the king at the revolution’s outbreak, represents the Ancient Régime’s complexities and the challenges of monarchical rule in a time of profound societal change.

His inability to effectively manage France’s financial crisis and his hesitancy to embrace substantial reforms contributed to the revolutionary fervor. His execution in 1793 symbolized the revolution’s radical break from monarchical tradition and the birth of the republic.

Marie Antoinette, the queen consort of Louis XVI, became a symbol of the monarchy’s extravagance and disconnect from the common people. Her fate, like that of her husband, underscores the revolution’s rejection of the old order and the desire for a new societal structure based on equality and merit rather than birthright.

Jean-Paul Marat , a journalist and politician, used his publication, L’Ami du Peuple, to advocate for the rights of the lower classes and to call for radical measures against the revolution’s enemies.

His assassination by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin sympathizer, in 1793 became one of the revolution’s most famous episodes, illustrating the deep divisions within revolutionary France.

Finally, Napoleon Bonaparte, though not a leader during the revolution’s peak, emerged from its aftermath to shape France’s future. A military genius, Napoleon used the opportunities presented by the revolution’s chaos to rise to power, eventually declaring himself Emperor of the French.

His reign would consolidate many of the revolution’s reforms while curtailing its democratic aspirations, embodying the complexities of the revolution’s legacy.

These key figures, among others, played significant roles in the unfolding of the French Revolution. Their contributions, whether for the cause of liberty, the maintenance of order, or the pursuit of personal power, highlight the multifaceted nature of the revolution and its enduring impact on history.

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The French Revolutions: Causes and Impacts Essay

Introduction, origin and experience of the 1789 revolution, origin and experience of the 1848 revolution, similarities.

Bibliography

France has had many major revolutions that changed the country’s face, politically, socially and economically. By the 1700s, it had a full strength monarch system of government in which the king held absolute power also known as an absolute monarchy, most typified by Louis XIV. The nobles that were allowed to make legislations were corrupt and often enriched themselves leaving the poor or the so-called third estates to lavish in poverty 1 . This paper will attempt to compare and contrast the two revolutions, which occurred in 1789 and 1848, focusing on their causes as well as the impacts associated with their occurrences.

The 1789 revolution took place at a time when the French monarchy had absolute power, governing the whole country and implementing high tax due to massive debt caused by wars that King Louis XVI had participated in including the American war of independence. Its causes were mainly the hard social, economic and political cataclysm that they had and were worsening each day 2 . The country was heading into bankruptcy, making life much more difficult; people died daily and were buried in pauper graves, privileges were given to the nobles and the church. This led to a surge in protests involving mainly of the public and their sympathizers in various French cities like Paris, Lyon, Marseille, among others. The monarch’s symbol of power was the Bastille jail in Paris that had been in place for the past 400 years and its attack signified the beginning of a republican government. This saw execution of King Louis amid protest from other European countries that supported the rule of monarchy, and duped France into wars with other states like Britain, which had a constitutional monarchy, Spain and the Netherlands as well as Belgium.

The impacts of this ‘terror’ were worsened by the soaring prices with the devaluation of French currency due to unprecedented war that was in existence. This prompted price control in almost all foodstuffs as the Jacobins seized power in a reign of terror. The national assembly that was constituted mainly by the third estate constituted a committee of public safety, whose days were numbered with the escalating famine and shortages that faced the country. Besides, workable laws were still in the process of making as they fought to install a feasible constitution. Tax levied by the Catholic Church, which owned the largest land in the country added more injury to already soaring economic problems. The effects were realized but at a price since even though rights of citizens were instilled, ravaging famine, wars and terror consumed the population 3 . This revolution took new shift as power changed hands from monarchy, through to the Robespierre, Jacobins, in 1794 then to Directory through to 1799 when Napoleon took over under Consulate. Secularism became rampant; innovations, wars, and the restoration of monarchy are some of the results that surfaced 4 . For instance, After the King’s execution, Revolutionary tribunal and public safety committee were instituted; this saw a reign of terror, with ruling faction brutally killing potential enemies irrespective of their age, sex or condition. Paris alone recorded about 1400 deaths in the last six weeks to 27 July 1794, when it was replaced by Directory in 1975. This brought together 500 representatives, in a bicameral legislature consisting of two chambers, which lasted about 4 years to 1799 when it was replaced by Consulate.

This revolution took place in Europe at a time when reforms were the main activity. This ended the reinstated monarchy that had replaced the earlier revolution 5 . A second republic was instituted and later saw the election of Louis Napoleon as its president although he went on to establish an empire that lasted another 23 years. The Orleans monarch had been put in place following a protest that saw the July monarch, Charles abdicate his throne and flee to England in 1830. This new monarch stood among three opposing factions, the socialists, legitimists, and the republicans. With Louis Philippe at the helm of Orleans’s rule, mainly supported by the elites, favors were given to the privileged set; this led to disenfranchisement of the working classes as well as most of the middle class. Another problem that caused this revolution was the fact that only landowners were allowed to vote, separating the poor from the rich. The leader never cared for the needs of his subjects as some people were not permitted in the political arena. He also opposed the formation of a parliamentary system of government. Furthermore, the country was facing another economic crisis, and depression of the economy due to poor harvest 6 Poor transport system affected aid efforts during the depression and the crushing of those who rebelled.

It started with banquets as protests were outlawed, resulting in protests and barricades once Philippe outlawed banquets forcing him to abdicate and flee to England as well. Provisional government was formed, in what was called a second republic. Unemployment relief was incorporated in government policies and universal suffrage enacted, which added 9 million more voters. Workshops were organized which ensured the ‘right to work’ for every French citizen. Other impacts included reduced trading and luxury as the wealthy fled and this meant servicing credits was a problem. Conservatism increased in the new government with struggles emerging between the classes. Eventually, politics tilted to the right and this revolution failed once again, ushering in the second empire.

The two revolutions had very many similarities in their origins; the first was started out of social and political problems like, unemployment, which was widely prevalent. Similarly, the second was also aimed at establishing the right to work. In both cases, forced protests were used to ensure that revolutions took place and they all failed; the first, giving way to emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and the second ushering emperor napoleon III. In both cases, corruption was rampant as could be seen in the nobles of the first monarchy and the elite who were favored in the second monarch. Financial crisis and expected economic depression was significant in causing the two revolutions. The impacts were also similar in some ways as there were no stable governments during the two revolutions.

The first revolution was more radical as it caused terror and war as compared to the second, which was less violent; this is evident in the assault on Bastille. The causes of the first revolution were more founded on the basic rights of the people as compared to the second. The first revolution occurred when there was limited freedom to the public with their rights restricted to one vote by the third estate, while in the second revolution, there were provisional governments that had liberated some of the restrictions like the universal suffrage and characterized by struggles between classes. The first revolution was the initiation of the revolutions that followed and was characterized with heavy loss of lives during the reign of terror, while the second was characterized by more political and social systems that enforced changes.

The two revolutions failed to fulfill all their goals although they made several crucial changes such as universal suffrages, which added 9 million new voters. Many thoughts have considered the revolutions to make a huge impact on British Philosophical, intellectual and political life, having a major impact on the Western history. Some of the sympathizers of the revolution like Thomas Paine among other English radicals shared their sentiment at first, as they believed it was a sign of liberty, fraternity and Equality. However, when it turned into exterminations and terror, it gave second thoughts to the earlier supporters. In the end, after the second revolution’s failure, a second state was put in office, led by Napoleon III; he purged the republicans, thereby dissolving the National Assembly, and then established a second empire, restoring the old order. It is imperative to note that the revolutions made great significance in the developments of Europe as a whole.

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The French Revolution, Its Outcome, and Legacy

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The outcome of the French Revolution , which began in 1789 and lasted for more than a decade, had numerous social, economic, and political effects not just in France but also in Europe and beyond. 

Prelude to Revolt

By the late 1780s, the French monarchy was on the brink of collapse. Its involvement in the American Revolution had left the regime of King Louis XVI bankrupt and desperate to raise funds by taxing the wealthy and the clergy. Years of bad harvests and rising prices for basic commodities led to social unrest among the rural and urban poor. Meanwhile, the growing middle class (known as the bourgeoisie ) was chafing under an absolute monarchical rule and demanding political inclusion.

In 1789 the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General—an advisory body of clergy, nobles, and bourgeoisie that had not convened in more than 170 years—to garner support for his financial reforms. When the representatives assembled in May of that year, they couldn't agree on how to apportion representation.

After two months of bitter debate, the king ordered delegates locked out of the meeting hall. In response, they convened on June 20 on the royal tennis courts, where the bourgeoisie, with the support of many clergy and nobles, declared themselves the new governing body of the nation, the National Assembly, and vowed to write a new constitution.

Although Louis XVI agreed in principle to these demands, he began plotting to undermine the Estates-General, stationing troops throughout the country. This alarmed the peasants and middle class alike, and on July 14, 1789, a mob attacked and occupied the Bastille prison in protest, touching off a wave of violent demonstrations nationwide.

On Aug. 26, 1789, the National Assembly approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the Declaration of Independence in the United States, the French declaration guaranteed all citizens equal, enshrined property rights and free assembly, abolished the absolute power of the monarchy and established representative government. Not surprisingly, Louis XVI refused to accept the document, triggering another massive public outcry.

The Reign of Terror

For two years, Louis XVI and the National Assembly co-existed uneasily as reformers, radicals, and monarchists all jockeyed for political dominance. In April 1792 the Assembly declared war on Austria. But it quickly went badly for France, as Austrian ally Prussia joined in the conflict; troops from both nations soon occupied French soil.

On Aug. 10, French radicals took the royal family prisoner at Tuileries Palace. Weeks later, on Sept. 21, the National Assembly abolished the monarchy entirely and declared France a republic. King Louis and Queen Marie-Antoinette were tried hastily and found guilty of treason. Both would be beheaded in 1793, Louis on Jan. 21 and Marie-Antoinette on Oct. 16.

As the Austro-Prussian war dragged on, the French government and society, in general, were mired in turmoil. In the National Assembly, a radical group of politicians seized control and began implementing reforms, including a new national calendar and the abolition of religion. Beginning in September 1793, thousands of French citizens, many from the middle and upper classes, were arrested, tried, and executed during a wave of violent repression aimed at the Jacobins' opponents, called the Reign of Terror.   

The Reign of Terror would last until the following July when its Jacobin leaders were overthrown and executed. In its wake, former members of the National Assembly who had survived the oppression emerged and seized power, creating a conservative backlash to the ongoing French Revolution .

Rise of Napoleon

On Aug. 22, 1795, the National Assembly approved a new constitution that established a representative system of government with a bicameral legislature similar to that in the U.S. For the next four years, the French government would be beset by political corruption, domestic unrest, a weak economy, and ongoing efforts by radicals and monarchists to seize power. Into the vacuum strode French Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte. On Nov. 9, 1799, Bonaparte backed by the army overthrew the National Assembly and declared the French Revolution over.

Over the next decade and a half, he could consolidate power domestically as he led France in a series of military victories across much of Europe, declaring himself emperor of France in 1804. During his reign, Bonaparte continued the liberalization that had begun during the Revolution, reforming its civil code, establishing the first national bank, expanding public education, and investing heavily in infrastructures like roads and sewers.

As the French army conquered foreign lands, he brought these reforms, known as the Napoleonic Code , with him, liberalizing property rights, ending the practice of segregating Jews in ghettos, and declaring all men equal. But Napoleon would eventually be undermined by his own military ambitions and be defeated in 1815 by the British at the Battle of Waterloo. He would die in exile on the Mediterranean island of St. Helena in 1821.

Revolution's Legacy and Lessons

With the advantage of hindsight, it's easy to see the positive legacies of the French Revolution . It established the precedent of representational, democratic government, now the model of governance in much of the world. It also established liberal social tenets of equality among all citizens, basic property rights, and separation of church and state, much as did the American Revolution. 

Napoleon's conquest of Europe spread these ideas throughout the continent, while further destabilizing the influence of the Holy Roman Empire, which would eventually collapse in 1806. It also sowed the seeds for later revolts in 1830 and 1849 across Europe, loosening or ending the monarchical rule that would lead to the creation of modern-day Germany and Italy later in the century, as well as sow the seeds for the Franco-Prussian war and, later, World War I.

Additional Sources

  • Editors of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica. " French Revolution ." 7 February 2018.
  • History.com staff. " French Revolution ." History.com.
  • The Open University staff. " French Revolution ." Open.edu.
  • Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media staff. "Legacies of the Revolution." chnm.gmu.edu.

Linton, Marisa. " Ten myths about the French Revolution ." Oxford University Press blog, 26 July 2015. 

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French Revolution: Success or Failure?

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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness” (Charles Dickens). In 1789, the French Revolution broke out between the nobles and the citizens of France resulting in 16,594 people died under the guillotine due to the political, economical, and social clash between two sides. Since it was the most influential Revolution that spreads swiftly through the European countries, many historians have different points, sources and opinions about the French Revolution. It usually divided into two themes; several historians like to argue that French Revolution was the turning point of the French history while other historians portray the French Revolution as the Bloody Revolution. Nevertheless, clearly, it is impossible to judge the French Revolution was efficient or inefficient because it is actually both. French Revolution gave great benefits as well as played a significant role to eliminate aristocracy yet it produced too much blood shed and left ineradicable scar on French people’s heart.

The numerous circumstances and factors accumulated to intensify the heat of the French and brought them out on roads to fight for their inalienable rights. Ancien Regime, a system that existed before the French Revolution of 1789, played a vital role to provoke the ‘enlightened’ French citizens. Under this regime, the King of France had right and power to control everything and everyone was a subject of the King as well as a member of an estate. Additionally, this unfair system gave privilege only to clergy and noble such as immunity from taxation. The most important fact is that these people only possessed two- percent in France. In other words, about 98 percent of France citizens had to pay the heavy taxes for preserving their life. Besides Ancien Regime, there are many historical factors and events that actually made the French Revolution as an inevitable revolution such as insatiableness of King, American Revolution, and financial crisis in France. Therefore, the French citizens rise up with arms and prepared to stand against with their government in order to protect their rights and democracy.  

French Revolution started the fire with the fall of the Bastille which is one of the positive historical events that happened during the Revolution. The Bastille was the political prison in Paris and the place that symbolizes the repression of freedom. In 1789, the citizens who were provoked by the French government and their King suddenly attack the Bastille in order to take back the equality and liberty, “This oppression and lack of representation in their government caused the masses of French citizens to make armed revolution against King Louis XVI” (Faithorn 192). Through this event, French people saw the power of democracy and took one step forward to liberty. Additionally, the prisoners who were rescued by French people during the storm of Bastille actually helped the France during the foreign wars such as war with Austria and Prussia, “When prisoners were released from the walls of the Bastille, some of them were actually joined the army for benefit of France” (Bryan 31). Without doubt, the Bastille is one of the factors that make the French Revolution as a Glorious Revolution. In fact, French people commemorate the day when the French people grasp the Bastille as the national holiday of France. France people celebrate this holiday to symbolize not only the uprising of the modern nation but also the downfall of monarchy.

France is one of the countries that have strong nationality in Europe and this nationalism is actually reinforced through the French Revolution. La Marseillaise, the national anthem of France, is a song composed by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle. Although, this anthem didn’t play a vital role during the beginning of the Revolution, it actually used as a ‘pump – song’ during the war between Prussia and Austria. Interestingly, the composer of the national anthem has great relationship with the Bastille. The anthem is written in 1792 which is the few years after the fall of the Bastille. Claude Joseph started to write this national song after he observed the French citizen’s audacity and braveness in the Bastille and got the ideas from the French flag which was fluttered on the top of the Bastille. Even now this anthem is using by French people and is the first song that they sing on the Bastille Day. Therefore, there is no doubt that French Revolution spreads nationality and can be depict as the Revolution that has positive points.  

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The French citizens required and wanted the strong government that has power to control the French society. The Representative Government which was stronger government then previous government, monarchy, gave social equality to French people. Since this government has a system that emphasizes the democracy, it played a vital role to ‘represent’ the will of the people in some way – by translating popular sentiment or public interest into policy (Bryan 2) liberty, freedom, and brotherhood. Unlike the previous government, it was more efficient and had accurate system because it had many different sub-officers who made great success to make the organize government that protects people’s rights, “Representative government has reached its greatest perfection, the perfection which combines simplicity with efficiency especially in economic…corporation with sub-officers…is perhaps the best government that human ingenuity has devised” (Clow 48). Clearly, the Representative government worked their best to protect and balance the power between the citizens and noble. Moreover, the Representative government was main factor and issue that created the Constitution of 1791 which assisted as well as idealized the French citizens to think about their rights seriously.  

French Revolution made not only the great impacts on the nationality but also the strong constitution that made France as a democratic country. The Constitution of 1791, the first constitution of France, symbolizes the first step of France democracy. The main idea of constitution was producing a completely new social order as well as forgetting the traditions of the Ancien Regime. Through this constitution, King of France allowed to maintain the monarchy yet loses some executive authorities,

Under the New Constitution, King Louis XVI could only temporarily veto legislation passed by the assembly. The Constitution restricted voting in the assembly to the upper and middle classes of French society and abolished “nobility” as a legal order (Hargate 77).

Without doubt, through this constitution, the French citizens were able to reinforce their rights and liberty by eliminating the nobility. Also, the National Assembly snatched the power of King from his hand; King Louis XVI had no authority to control the army of France and the local governments. In addition, French citizens were allowed to have “voting rights” under this new constitution, “the Legislative Assembly would be made up of representatives elected by Electors” Truly, this historical event gave critical impacts on French society. Not only it gave French people to have voting rights but also symbolizes the France was not the autocratic country. Therefore, the French Revolution created another positive point and effect through the New Constitution.  

Most of the Constitution that created during the Revolution era was to give equality and right to the French citizens. Clearly, the French Revolution produced lots of contents as well as clubs that helped and improved the French society. Jacobin Club was one of the most influential and powerful clubs that existed during the French Revolution. Several historians acclaim that the members of this club symbolize the downfall of monarchy because they were the one who led the King Louis XVI to guillotine. Moreover, through this club, the French Revolution was allowed to abandon the feudalism and laissez- faire which played a vital role to represent the inequality. Besides the club, the Jacobin Declaration of Rights was crucial since it added to that of 1789 the principle of the freedom of worship “no longer inhibited by the proviso that it must not ‘disturb the social peace” (Rude 86). In addition, due to the declaration, the freedoms of the economy and of trade were now more evidently stated. In this sense, Jacobin tried their best to improve and make the French society as the place with equality. Hence, Jacobin can include in one of the reasons that prove the French Revolution was efficient.

In 1789, the French Revolution produced another historical event which is known as the Great Fear. Most of the historians advocate this event was one of the main reasons that make the French Revolution as the Bloody Revolution. However, in fact, Great Fear had quite positive results and features. First of all, it created militias to organize themselves in a more efficient manner (Rude 49). In addition, it gave an impetus to “the progress of the Revolution in the provinces” (Rude 49). Despite of its negative points, Great Fear has quite good points that represent the French Revolution. Furthermore, the Great Fear actually brought the August Decree in 1789 which was the law that ended the feudal system in France and abolished noble rights and clerical system,

It decrees that, among the existing rights and dues, both feudal and censual, all those originating in or representing real or personal serfdom shall be abolished without indemnification (Article I).

Clearly, the French citizens made the aristocrats to surrender their especial privileges and reinforced their rights and equality. The reason why this is one of the positive points about the French Revolution is because it gave great impact on French citizens economically, politically, and socially.

A source similar to the Constitution of 1791, the French Revolution produced the fundamental document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man. This basic document was adopted by the National Assembly in 1789. The most noted French politicians designed this document such as Montesquieu, Locke and Rousseau which means the French document is heavily dependent on the politicians. Several historians portray the Declaration of the Rights as the ‘voice’ of the Third Estates. In other words, the Declaration of the Rights includes rules that assert natural rights for the French citizens and all men without exception . It emphasizes “all the citizens, being equal in the eyes of the law, are equally admissible to all public dignities, places, and employments” (Article VI). Under this document, the French citizens are equal and they should have same privilege without any discrimination such as social background. Truly, through this article, the French people were guaranteed the rights of freedom, liberty and security.

Due to the lack of organization of King Louis XVI, the French people had to fight with poverty. The food prices were unbalanced and disequilibrium during the Revolution and it actually brought many people to the cliff. In 1793, the National Convention proposed the Law of Maximum as one of the solution that can cover the economic problems. The purpose of law was to manage the grain prices by establishing the maximum legal costs. Although, it concluded with the huge inflation, many consumers and producers were allowed to earn same prices, and it was one of the wartime emergencies that helped the French citizens from the economic drawbacks. Furthermore, in that period, Law of maximum was the best way and the only way to manage the high bread prices,

“Paris Commune decided to fix the price of bread with the aid of a subsidy to bakers at 3 sous a pound- a mere50 per cent above the normal pre- revolutionary level at a time when other prices had more than doubled. Two months later, the Assembly followed by passing its first Maximum Law (Rude 84).

France had serious problems to handle the ‘double’ prices of food, thus, Paris Commune determined to introduce the Law of Maximum after few months. If they did not proposed the law then it might brought the France to face with deeper problems. It clearly depicts that the French Revolution created the ideas and laws which were the best way to pass the benefits to the French citizens.

Before the Revolution, France used the Gregorian calendar that had been used since the Dark Ages, however, due to the French Revolution; France gained a new system of measurement known as Metric System. This brand- new system designed to remove the antiquated and difficult to use systems of measurement which had urbanized over the centuries. The reason why this system made the French Revolution as a positive revolution is because it helped the France to develop their markets, business and consumers. Under the Metric system, people didn’t have to spend their time to measure all the supplies and calculate all the sources, they just needed to follow the rules and standards which were more scientifically accurate and easier to use,

the new definition for a meter be equal to 1 10 millionth (1/10,000,000) of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator, and this was accepted by the National Assembly in 1791. This would provide a scientifically accurate and constant measurement for the meter and the basis of their new system (McGraw 33).

Through this system, France economics promoted significantly and rapidly. It helps to improve markets, trade between consumers and suppliers, as well as enhance the French Revolution. Most of the historians insist that the development of the metric system was one of the most and greatest change during the French Revolution; not only for the French citizens but also for all the Europeans.

Many historians advocate the French Revolution was one of the famous and greatest issues that appeared during the mid-18 th  century since it gave critical impacts on other European countries such as Austria, Prussia and England. After the King Louis XVI killed by his citizens, many European countries was worried about that their citizens might rise up with their ‘enlightened’ idea in order to get democracy as well as eliminate the feudalism. Thus, clearly, the French Revolution gave not only the liberty but also expanded the revolutionary ideas through whole Europe. In other words, the French Revolution was aimed to “be more than just a revolution in government. It was mean to become a revolution in all areas” (Hargate 34). In fact, there are several revolutions that had occurred because of the French Revolution. Russian Revolution in 1917 clearly demonstrates and proves the influence of the French Revolution. Therefore, it is evident that the European countries like Austria wanted to fight against with the French citizens because the country that had the system of monarchy might have to face with the Revolution just like the French Revolution. Besides the monarchy, the countries that had a settlement in other countries were also afraid about the Revolution in France. England, the country that had colonial policy in Ireland, was also wanted to stop the French Revolution because they didn’t want to face with another revolutionary war. Hence, it is clear that the French Revolution influenced many European countries. These events and evidence clearly support that the French Revolution was a Glorious Revolution.

There is no doubt that the French Revolution gained and lost many things. In other words, the French Revolution has several negative facts and evidences that symbolize the French Revolution as the ‘Bloody Revolution.’ First of all, the French Revolution took off too much people’s head. Approximately, seven hundred thousand people died during the French Revolution including innocent nobles and citizens. Likewise, many historical events actually made the situation worse. For instance, The Reign of Terror in 1793 depicts that the French Revolution was inefficient for the French citizens. The terror was led by Maximilien Robespierre, and it placed the French citizens in the fear. In addition, Robespierre introduced the new dictatorship in France and killed all the members in Gironde; another group like Jacobin that wanted to improve the French society with the different points of view. Furthermore, the French Revolution promoted the creation of émigrés; the counter revolutionists. It is also great examples to support that the French Revolution was not effective and main factor that produced the White Terror. The émigrés, the political people who emigrate from their own country due to the political reason, played a significant role to make the conflicts and struggles between the Jacobins and émigrés. Later this event called as the White Terror and concludes with the blood shed.

Besides the White Terror, the Revolution in France concluded with the war with other European countries, and created poverty as well as economics problems. The execution of King Louis XVI was absolutely breaking news for other European countries. Especially, the Prussia and Austria were shocked and provoked by the French citizens. Thus, in 1792, the French Revolution drove France towards war with Austria and its allies. During the period of the war, many people “died and the economy was very bad…great part of the French population thought the revolution had gone too far” (Brien 39). The French government wasted too much money and people’s lives. Consequently, it made many people to get sick of the Revolution rather than spread the idea of freedom, liberty and brotherhood. Moreover, the Revolution actually played a vital role to create the tension between the bourgeoisies and sans-culottes. Sans-culottes, the activators of the Revolution, were provoked by the bourgeoisies after they realized bourgeoisies manipulated them in order to grasp and grow their power. Several historians describe the French Revolution was “turning points for bourgeoisies.” In other words, the purpose of the French Revolution was just enlarging the power of bourgeoisies. Lastly and significantly, the French Revolution didn’t achieve true goals; it failed to mange the French society. During the Revolution, the government of France changed the constitution more than three times, “In 1791, the Constitution of 1791 was adopted. A few years later, a new constitution was sanctioned. This was successful until 1799” (Fryer 33). The lack of strong government concluded with changing the constitution constantly which made the confusion to the French citizens and created the tension between the bourgeoisies and the citizens.

All in all, the French Revolution has some negative points as well as positive perspectives. It is absolutely conflict subject to argue since there are enormous amounts of fact that prove the French Revolution was either benefit or harmful. Several historians might argue that the French Revolution was the Revolution that the French people needed. Meanwhile, other historians symbolize the French Revolution as the Revolution that destroyed all the hopes of the French citizens. However, it is clear that due to the Revolution in France, the European history changed dramatically. It lasted from 1789 through 1799, and left certain lasting effects upon not only the French Nation but also the European countries; it created new intellectual, cultural, political dimensions and social reforms.

Bibliography

Rude, George. The French Revolution : Its Causes, Its History and Its Legacy after 200 Years . Grand Rapids: Avalon Travel, 2000.

French Revolution: Success or Failure?

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