French Revolution


According to my judgment, the French Revolution and the doings of Napoleon opened the eyes of the world. The nations knew nothing before, and the people thought that kings were gods upon the earth and that they were bound to say that whatever they did was well done. Through this present change it is more difficult to rule the people.”

by T. Kolokotrones, one of the revolutionary fighters in the Greek war of independence

The French Revolution (1789–1799) had begun during the War of American Independence. It happened during the period of ideological, political, and social changes in the history of France and Europe. It underwent a radical change based on Enlightenment principles of republicanism, citizenship, and rights. These changes were achieved by violent turmoil, including executions and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every major European power.

Earlier French society was Autocratic with the extravagant rulers, privileged nobles, clergy, landless peasants, unemployed workers with unequal taxation. In the 18th century, France was strong and fought many wars all over the world and, acquired many territories. However, the French monarchy was facing a crisis that leads to its destruction. As everything that happened in the world impacted other parts, the American revolution triggered the French Revolution, so let’s first read American Revolution.

Time-Line of the French revolution

  • In 1789 (Phase 1)- Start of revolution (Bourgeoisie Phase)
    • 16 June- Formation of National assembly
    • 9 July- National assembly forms constitutional assembly
    • 14 July- National assembly attacks on the fort of Bastille
    • 26 August- There was the declaration of rights of man and citizen-led to death of the older system.
  • 1791-1804 (Phase 2)- the National assembly forms a National convention
    • In 1793- Jacobins came to power with the start of Reign of terror under the leadership of Robespierre. The king and queen were killed in this period.
    • In 1795- New rule of Directory Rule started
    • Between 1795-98 was the time of Napoleon rise was also the time of Law and order issues and Foreign invasion.
  • In 1804 (Phase 3)- There were emperor reforms.
    • In 1815- Defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, came a system called the Metternich system to restore imperialism via the Vienna convention.

The main reason for the revolution was the conflict between rulers and the common of French society. The French revolution is important because for the first time it focuses on individual rights- Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity for every person’s right to freedom and equal treatment. Let’s see the main causes of revolution…

Political cause

It was an absolute Monarchy led by the Bourbon dynasty. Kings were very powerful as rights to them were given by Gods without any responsibilities towards citizens. It had also been practiced in India as Devam Priyashi in Ashoka times and Jille ilahi during Balban reign. Louis XIV and Louis XV were powerful kings and successfully able to centralize the political system and abandoned Representative Institution of France and Estate General. Society was facing rampant corruption, such as the prevalence of Letters de chachet by which an arrest warrant could have been issued against any citizen.

During the outbreak, Louis XVI was the king of France a man of mediocre intelligence, obstinate, and indifferent to the work of the government. He and his beautiful but empty-headed wife, Marie Antoinette squandered money on festivities and showered favors and pensions upon their friends. The state always faced financial troubles for keeping huge armies and waging wars. Finally, it brought the state to bankruptcy. Government offices were also monopolized by aristocrats and nobles. (So here you can see there was the structural fault in France)

Social cause

French society was divided into three estates and two were privileged. First, were the Clergy people related to the catholic church were 1% but owned about 15 percent of the total land of France, they denied the enlightenment idea. They controlled the educational system, poor relief, hospital provision, and had extensive powers of censorship, and were also exempted from taxes! and even have rights to levy taxes, first was Tithe that was 10% of a person’s income and the second was sin letters. Taxed money was used to run schools and public functions. That contributed to the feudal burden and poverty of society.

The second class was nobility who occupy most of the administrative and high-ranking positions and were also exempted from taxes! They were 3% of population and owned about 20 percent of the total resources of France. They enjoy hereditary privileges like Gentry of the sword, Gentry of the hat, etc. They considered engaging in trade or manufacturing or doing any work against their dignity. The life of the nobility was extravagant and luxurious. There were, of course, poorer sections in these two top estates. They were discontented and blamed the richer members of their class for their misery.

The rest of the people of France were called the Third Estate. It was an only unprivileged class that pays taxes equal to 50% of income. They were about 97 percent of the total population which was again divided with many differences in wealth and style of living. The plight of the tenants and share-croppers was worse. Forced labor was prevalent in society. Workers who lived in cities were trade people, apprentices, laborers, and domestic workers. The revolution was fought by the educated middle class or the bourgeoisie were writers, doctors, judges, lawyers, teachers, civil servants, merchants, bankers, and manufacturers.

Cultural cause

Ideological developments or Age of Reason: Christianity had taught that man was born to suffer. The French revolutionary philosophers asserted that man was born to be happy. They either denied the existence of God or ignored Him. In place of God, they asserted the doctrine of Nature and the need to understand its laws.

The first people to face the brunt of the French philosophers were clergy. Series of scientific advancements since the Renaissance campaigned against the clergy. Voltaire, one of the most famous French writers of the time, though not an atheist, believed that all religions were absurd and contrary to reason. They believed that man’s destiny lay in this world rather than in heaven. Writings attacking religion fed the fires of revolution because the Church gave support to the autocratic monarchy and the old order as he mentioned in his book Age of Louis XIV. The French economists believed in Laissez-faire, a person must be left free to manage his property in the way he thinks best. Like American revolutionaries before them, the physiocrats said that taxes should have been imposed only with the consent of whom they were levied.

 Jean Jacques Rousseau

The philosopher-writer, Montesquieu, thought about the kind of government that is best suited to man and outlined the principles of constitutional monarchy. However, it was Jean Jacques Rousseau who asserted the doctrine of popular sovereignty and democracy. He said, ‘Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.’ He talked of the ‘state of nature’ when a man was free and said that freedom was lost following the emergence of property. He recognized property in modern societies as a necessary evil. Rousseau’s theories also contained a principle written in the American Declaration of Independence: no political system can maintain itself without the consent of the governed.

Economic Cause

France was continuously waging war resulted in unmanageable national debt. The government was bound to increase the burden on the third class, and the inequitable system of taxation made it worse. France was spending 3/4th expense on defense. American war and the Lavish life of the king negatively contributed. The third class was unable to pay the taxes due to widespread famine, which pushed them to poverty, and intentional starvation, malnutrition, and the likelihood of disease and death. Flawed taxation policies also affected the local trade, led to the emergence of Bread prices, and Bread riots.

All these economic reasons were forcing the king to tax the nobles.

Immediate cause

In the time between 1780-1789, the ruler was weak, the country was on the verge of bankruptcy with no income. Charles-Alexandre de Calonne was appointed as Finance minister, he called a session of the special council. This special council was constituted by members of Estate I and Estate II and the proposal of the finance minister was to tax Estate I and Estate II. He was very determined that that was the only way to deal with the situation. However, as everyone could think, the proposal was declined and Finance Minister was also dismissed.

Estate General

As the situation persisted, the King appointed Étienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne his new finance minister. Brienne again sent the same proposal to the special council was again got rejected. He then sent the proposal to parliament which was also constituted by members of Estate I and Estate II (hereditary nobles) that advised to send it to Estate General. Estate general was disbanded in 1614, but nobles wanted to curb power of ruler by reviving the old system. (in 1787 agriculture crisis and in 1788 bad harvest led to bread riots, inflation, unemployment act as trigger for revolution) Estate general was comprised of 300 members from estate I, 285 members from estate II, and 621 members of estate III. All estate were provided with 1 vote each. During voting estate III demanded doubling the representation of the Third Estate (Necker accepted the demand), joint seating, and one vote for each person. (not accepted) Members of upper classes cancelled the meeting and locked the assembly hall as were not ready to abide by the request.

The revolution

Abbe Sieyes awakened people by ‘Sieyès’ famous pamphlet Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? and encouraged all to join. (to join one should reject all privileges) On June 17, the Third Estate claimed to represent 96 percent of the nation’s population 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), vowed not to disperse until constitutional reform achieved.

On October 5, 1789, the people of Paris, mainly working women, marched on Versailles. The women were responding to their anger at the harsh economic situations they had to face such as bread shortages while the King and his court held banquets on October 1, 1789. They were also demanding an end to Royalist efforts to block the National Assembly. It pushed King and his administration to move to Paris to address poverty. On October 6, 1789, 20,000 National Guards, the King, and the royal family moved from Versailles to Paris thus legitimized the National Assembly.

On 27 June 1789 National assembly get recognition and as a result, Feudalism, Serfdom, privilege’s system abolished and the Church tax (tithe)removed.

Tennis Court Oath

On 9 July 1789 National assembly converted itself to the constituent assembly. Still, there was no solution to the economic crisis. (bread riots, unemployment) To solve the situation King appointed another finance minister Jacques Turgot, who advised the king to reduce spending, was removed. A new finance minister Jacques Necker (influential speaker in national assembly) was appointed, he again advised to tax the privileged class, was removed. Jacques Necker was compiled by the members of the National assembly….. Triggered Riots, anarchy, and widespread looting.

The mob soon had the support of the French Guard, including arms and trained soldiers, because the royal leadership essentially abandoned the city. The King and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. Lafayette famous for also fighting in the American Revolutionary War took up command of the National Guard at Paris. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, (president of the Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath) became the city’s mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune.

Attack on Fort Bastille

Attack on Fort Bastille on 14 July 1789 (a national holiday in France) National assembly soon joined by the guards. They surrounded the Bastille, a state prison, and they broke open the doors, freeing all the prisoners. The fall of the Bastille symbolized the fall of autocracy. After the fall of the Bastille, the revolt spread to other towns and cities and finally into the countryside. On 26 August the National Assembly adopted the famous Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. (also called the death certificate to the old system) It specified the equality of all men before the law, eligibility of all citizens for all pubic offices, freedom from arrest or punishment without proven cause, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press. Most important of all, to the middle class, was an equitable distribution of the burdens of taxation and rights of private property. The three-terms Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity were gifted to the world.

  • In 1791 France became a constitutional monarchy with its first written constitution, king lost his powers but still had a suspension veto and the ability to appoint ministers. That veto provided the right to suspend any bill of the national assembly.
  • In the same year, in October the separation of power, rule of law, and popular sovereignty were imposed.
  • In 1789 the war of the first coalition (Spain, Portugal, Holland, England, Austria, Prussia, Sardinia) was fought, it was the first attempt by European monarchies to defeat the French republic. The coalition invited by the French king was defeated by the French people. King and Queen were held responsible for treason and crimes against the state and guillotined.
  • The Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic.

National Convention (1792-1795)

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

  • In 1792, New system was established that is called the National Convention. Its members were decided by French men over the age of 25. France was a republic now, males were provided the right to vote and hold offices. Women were not provided right to vote.
  • Calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to “sans-culottes” alone.
  • There were two groups in French society, Girondists and Montagnards with the above described believes. Montagnards wanted to capture the power and centralize, a group immerged from them was radical called Jacobins, believing in direct democracy, tame to power.
  • During this period France was attacked by various powers and was defended by Jacobins. 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.
  • Fearing that the Revolution was in danger, took strong measures to crush forces inimical to the Revolution. In 14 months, some 17,000 people, including those who were innocent, were tried and executed. Some people have called it the “Reign of Terror“.
  • Robespierre (all people executed on his orders) dominated the draconian Committee of Public Safety until his own execution on July 28, 1794. He was executed due to fear of increasing absolutism in governance which officially ended the national convention.

The Directory (1795-1799)

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-membered Directory (Directoire) appointed by parliament. Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army.

  • They restricted voting rights and tried to stabilize the French economy. The state was continuously in attack from surrounding European powers to capture the power and restore the monarchy.
  • The directory was weak, Jacobin revolutionaries were also trying to capture power, there was environment of anarchy in France led to the rise of Napoleon, who was soon to declare himself Emperor of the French Republic.
  • 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
  • That strengthens the military and allowed Napoleon Bonaparte to organize a military coup and establish a new form of government that is called the consulate in 1799. European powers (Britain, Russia, and Austria) were continuously attacking France to get rid of Napoleon.

Napoleonic (1792-1815)

From 1792 to 1815, France was engaged in continuous war with European powers. Some historians have termed it as an international civil war because it was fought between revolutionary France and countries upholding the old order. However, until Napoleon became emperor, almost every enlightened person in the world sympathized with the French Revolution.

Napoleon was called as “the child as well as destroyer of revolution.” His only objective was “Glory of France,” he was supported by monarchy because only strongmen could handle the situation, middle class had supported because he bring stability and economic progress in society and peasants supported him because he promised them for the land rights. He is also called as “Architect of Modern Europe.” After Napoleon seized power, France recovered the territories she had lost and defeated Austria in 1805, Prussia in 1806, and Russia in 1807. However, on the sea, the French could not score against the stronger British navy.

Finally, an alliance of almost all Europe defeated France at Leipzig in 1813. These allied forces later occupied Paris, and Napoleon was defeated. His attempt at recovery was foiled at the Battle of Waterloo in June 1815.

The peace settlement, which involved all of Europe, took place at the Congress of Vienna. After the defeat of Napoleon, the old ruling dynasty of France was restored to power. However, within a few years, in 1830, there was another outbreak of the revolution. In 1848, the monarchy was again overthrown though it soon reappeared. Finally, in 1871, the Republic was again proclaimed.

Napoleon Reforms

  • Administrative reforms: He established strong and stable French state, centralized the administration, also established central secretariat. He also curbed the liberty of people to establish law and order and to establish equality he allowed only merit based appointments and centralized the education to mould students thoughts by written syllabus. He also established French Universities, military schools and also boost the industrial revolution.
  • Judicial reforms: In 1804 Napoleon code the civil, trade and commerce related laws known as Napoleon Code (one code for France). He established rule of law and inspired judicial system all over world.
  • Economic reforms: He nationalized the banks (bank of France), promoted free trade and uniform tax policy and also constructed roads and bridges.
  • Religious reforms: He adopted secular policy and signed an agreement with pope to be loyal to France and paid regular salary.

Consequences of the Revolution

Impact on France

  1. End of Monarchy and establishment of Republican government, constitutional government with no divine rights.
  2. Under the Jacobin constitution, all people were given the right to vote (equal political, and social rights) and the right of insurrection. It was the first genuinely democratic constitution in history. The peasants got their lands. The government abolished slavery in the French colonies and became torch bearer of humanity by three terms: Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.
  3. Power of church was reduced with no special privileges to tax (dime) and tried to establish the religious freedom. There lands were confiscated. Priest were force to take the oath to be loyal to the nation and state would pay salary to them.
  4. Many administrative and Judicial reforms: Reorganization after revolution, divided France to 83 departments then to 374 cants (districts) then to 44,000 communes. (Democracy at three levels and Napoleon’s codification of laws)
  5. Education and social welfare programs that had traditionally been provided by the Catholic Church declined dramatically with the Revolution’s attack. Decimal and metric systems were first introduced in 1795 and have been adopted by much of the world.
  6. The French Revolution gave the term ‘nation’ is not the territory that the people belonging to it inhabit but the people themselves. France was not merely the territories known as France but the ‘French people’. It united French people behind the army which consisted of revolutionary citizens against Europe.
  7. Nation is sovereign, means the people constituting the nation are the source of all power and authority. There cannot be any rulers above the people, only a republic in which the government derives its authority from the people and is answerable to the people. It is interesting to remember that when Napoleon became emperor he called himself the ‘Emperor of the French Republic’. Such was the strength of the idea of people’s sovereignty.
Nationalism in Europe during war against European powers.

Impact on England & Europe

  1. England initially welcomed the changes, because it would bring democracy in France. However, after prevalence of anarchy it suppresses the influenced anarchy in England.
  2. England supported anti-revolutionary activities in France results in economic crisis in England. Start of Ideological changes (social and political rights) for parliamentary reforms.
  3. Encouraged revolutionary activities in Ireland (against Britain), Poland. (against Russia) It United the kings of Europe to fought anti-revolutionary wars.

Impact of French Revolution on the World

  • It had been a world-shaking event. For years to come its direct influence was felt in many parts of the world. It inspired revolutionary movements in almost every country of Europe and in South and Central America.
  • The French soldiers, wherever they went, carried with them ideas of liberty and equality shaking the old feudal order. They destroyed serfdom in areas which came under their occupation and modernized the systems of administration.
  • Under Napoleon, the French had become conquerors instead of liberators. The countries which organized popular resistance against the French occupation carried out reforms in their social and political system. The leading powers of Europe did not succeed in restoring the old order either in France or in the countries that the Revolution had reached.
  • Modernization: The French Revolution originated the idea that ancien regimes should be “modernized” according to the principles of a rational state. Modernization extended to the military, the administrative system, and other aspects of French life, with effective results. The very idea of modernity can be traced to the revolution.

(Pictures from google)

Published by Neel Kamal

My name is Neelkamal. Here, I will provide the content effective for everyone who want to learn more and more. And if you want, I am open for your suggestion to write on. I have done M.Sc in Biotechnology and also read about the Political, Social, Environmental issues. So, my blog will surrounds upon topics related to these subjects.

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