The French Revolution

Roots | Reform Attempts | Estates-General and National Assembly | The Church
Legislative Assembly | The Convention and the Reign of Terror | The Thermidorian Reaction

In his novel, "A Tale of Two Cities", Dickens famously said of the French Revolution, "It was the best of times. It was the worst of times." This statement captures the excitement, hope, disappointment and horror of the age. On the eve of the Revolution, in 1789, France was the greatest of European powers. Militarily and economically, no single European state could hope to defeat them. However, the system of French Absolutism, which had served Louis XIV in the early 1700s, was falling apart. A tyrannical regime was incongruous in a society that was imbued with free thought, intellectual curiosity, and a basic comprehension of the rights of man as embodied in the writings of Rousseau. What was even more telling, bureaucracies run from the top are inevitably inefficient, and the French Monarchy had spent far beyond its means.

Roots of the French Revolution

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The ancien regime or the "old order" had indeed become top-heavy. The nobility paid no taxes, yet drew heavily from the government. To pay for the prosperity of the nobles, keep the king in the manner in which he was accustomed, and to maintain a large, but cumbersome military force, not to mention service the debt (Interest payments were fully one-half of the budget.), the money had to come from somewhere. Two onerous taxes were levied. First, the gabelle was a heavy tax on salt. Salt is a vital mineral, necessary for life, no one could escape the tax. The other was called the corvée. It was a requirement that all peasants give over a high proportion of their work time to repairing roads.

Just as wars had led to financial crisis in the British government of the 1600s, leading ultimately to constitutional monarchy, the many wars of Louis XIV were at the root of the problems of the Bourbon kings. The Seven Years War (French and Indian War in the American Colonies) resulted in vast expenditures and also territorial losses in North America. (New France - present day Canada - was taken by the British.) French support for the United States during the American Revolution gained France nothing, but cost a great deal in treasure, lives, and ships.

Attempts at Reform

Although the government did make efforts to reform, they could not overcome the inertia of the system. Near the end of the reign of Louis XV, Turgot, the Controller General of Finance, tried to institute a program that followed the ideals of the French Physiocrats. He proposed that spending be cut, trade guilds abolished, and the end of the corvée. His main proposal was to tax the land of the nobles. The nobles heartily resisted these moves. Louis XV died and his dilatory son, Louis XVI, fired Turgot.

Louis XVI made half-hearted attempts to right the ship of state. However, he seemed unable to impose his will on the nobles or even his ministers. His court was noted for being oblivious to the state of affairs. A famous if crusty joke illustrates the point.

Two nobles are seated together waiting for an audience with the king. One says to the other, "I say, the peasants are revolting." His companion turns his head and raises a monocle to his eye. "Sink me! But I hear they are rebelling, too."

Of course, this joke plays to stereotypes, but it does illustrate people's perceptions of the separation between the lives of the nobility and commoners. Later during bread riots, Marie Antoinette, the wife of the king was supposed to have said that if the poor women of Paris could not find bread, "Then let them eat cake." No where is there any record of the Queen having been so thoughtless as to make this remark. Yet it is another of those spontaneous beliefs that indicates a people's frame of mind.

A series of ministers would succeed Turgot, each trying to get a handle on the awful financial situation. Among them Jacques Necker, whose solution of simply borrowing and spending more made the situation worse.

The Estates-General and the National Assembly

Finally, King Louis XVI and his ministers decided that they must call together the Estates-General, which was a quasi-legislative body which had last met in 1614. It was made up of three estates. The first estate was the clergy. The second estate was the nobility. The third estate was everyone else. When the estates were elected, the third estate got 600 members, while the first and second estates received 300 each. However, a dispute arose as to how the votes should be counted. The nobility wanted each estate to cast one vote. The commoners wanted each member to have a vote. The king sided with the nobility.

The commoners refused to sit in the Estates-General except on the basis of one member/one vote. They met in another place at Versailles, but they were locked out of their meeting place. They gathered their members and a few renegade members from the other two estates on a tennis court. They formed a new National Assembly, and took an oath not to disband until they had given France a new constitution.

Events quickly began to spin out of the control of the monarchy. The king ordered the National Assembly to disband. Comte de Mirabeau, a larger than life florid member of the assembly, defied the king. The National Assembly continued to do its work. The king began to gather a force of troops comprised mainly of Swiss and German mercenaries. Rumors flew about the capitol that the king was going to use force. The people on the streets, incited by the sans coulottes, assaulted a symbol of royal power, a prison called the Bastille on 14 July 1789. Today this day is celebrated in France in the manner of the 4th of July in the United States.

Meanwhile, Paris, and much of France, was becoming radicalized. A patriotic force called the National Guard was ordered to be put together as a new model for a citizen's army and to take control of the military out of the hands of the king. Lafayette, the young hero of the American Revolution, was placed in command. In the countryside the "Great Fear" had rumors flying that the king's men were randomly killing peasants.

The high point for the National Assembly occurred when the body adopted The Declaration of the Rights of Man. This was a document which proclaimed the right of every individual to "liberty, property, security, and freedom from oppression." It proposed that the right of sovereignty is not in the monarchy, but in the nation. It also frightened the other European powers because it indicated that France was ready to export its revolution.

All around the country political clubs were forming. The most prominent, as well as the most radical, was the Jacobin Club. These clubs were made up mainly of middle-class individuals. The Jacobins were closely aligned with the sans coulottes, a rough and tumble bunch of workmen and rowdies who seemed to stir up trouble at every opportunity. "Sans Coulottes" literally means, "without breeches". They were called this because they wore long pants rather than the traditional knee-length breeches with stockings.

The Church During the Revolution

As the radicals in the assembly took more and more power they began to take extreme steps that began alienate more and more of the country. Their treatment of the Catholic church created a great rift within the population. Many of the radicals were Deists. They believed that God had set the universe in motion and then just let the mechanism run on its own. They felt that the church was crowded with superstition, so they began a campaign of persecution, which included confiscation of church lands and forcing priests to take an oath of loyalty to the state over the church.

Yet the move by the Assembly against the church was as much financial as it was ideological. In spite of all the National Assembly did, including taxing land, equalizing the law, and working to streamline the government, it was always short of cash. Rather in the manner of Henry VIII and the English Reformation, the French took away the church lands. The government sold bonds called assignats on church lands. This, for a brief time, alleviated the financial strain on the government. But soon the government was issuing more bonds than the land was worth, and inflation again set in.

The Legislative Assembly

In 1791 the National Assembly delivered on its promise and gave the nation a constitution. It would be a short-lived constitution. The Legislative Assembly began its work. It was dominated by a group called "The Mountain" because it sat high up in the back benches on the left side of the Legislature. It in turn was dominated by the radical Jacobin Club.

One interesting innovation of the French Republic was the development of a whole new calendar that made the date of the new constitution "year 1". The months, named for climate or weather, were 30 days long, with ten day weeks. The five extra days at the end of the year were a kind of holiday (along with a leap year every fourth year).

Part of the reason the radicals were able to carry forward their program was that France was being wrenched by outside powers. Frenchmen were afraid outsiders might try to invade France. Kings and emperors around Europe were aghast at the goings on inside France. They were especially afraid for their brother monarch, Louis XVI. They began to identify with his fortunes. The Emperor of Austria and the King of Prussia came together in a town called Pillnitz and declared that if the other powers of Europe would support them, they would intercede militarily on behalf of Louis.

Meanwhile there were mixed emotions about the revolution in Britain. Many saw it as a good thing, that is until it turned ugly. The noted whig politician Edmund Burke put the case from a distinctly phlegmatic, English point of view. He felt that the French constitution had been developed over several hundred years, and it was a mistake to destroy it all at once to create a new government "out of whole cloth". He was certain that civil disorder would be the result. In the event, his predictions of disaster for the new French government proved to be prescient.

In response to the Declaration of Pillnitz, France pre-emptively declared war on Austria and Prussia. The emergency efforts would spark the Jacobins to further radical measures, especially after Louis XVI had decided he'd had enough and attempted to escape into the arms of the enemies of France. The Jacobins, now under the hand of an icy idealist, Maximilien Robespierre made the case that if the king wished to support the enemies of France, then he too must be an enemy of the French people.

The Convention and the Reign of Terror

Drawing of Robespierre

By 1792 it was decided that the new constitution was no longer functioning. The king no longer performed the functions of the executive. The Legislative Assembly called a new convention. Yet rather than work to create a new government, the convention acted as a new government. It ruled through a series of committees. The most important being the Committee of Public Safety. The man in charge of this committee was Robespierre. He decided that anyone who opposed him politically was also opposed to the revolution and deserved to be executed, for the "good of the Republic". At the time a new mode of execution had been developed called the Guillotine. This and other methods were used to kill more than 25,000 political opponents throughout France. His idea was that if he kept the people in a constant "terror" that he might be able to shock them into living virtuous lives. During this "Reign of Terror" King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were also killed.

The judicial murders and poor treatment of the clergy, stirred opposition to Robespierre. Finally, as he was getting ready to launch yet another purge, his political opponents captured him and quickly had his head removed by "Madame Guillotine".

The Thermidorian Reaction, the Directory, the End of Revolution

To take the place of a now discredited Convention with its committees, a Directory of nine men was assembled to run the country. They had much to deal with, internal disorder, financial difficulties, war with half of Europe (the First Coalition), bread riots, and strong military men waiting in the wings for an opportunity. In spite of all this, they were successful in bringing some sanity back into politics. The destruction of the Jacobins and the relative calm that ensued is called by historians, the Thermidorian Reaction. Yet, for the most part the Directory led by Paul Barras could not cope with the manifold problems. In 1799 on a date in the new French Calendar called 18 Brumaire, one of those waiting strongmen seized power, his name, Napoleon Bonaparte.

The French Revolution certainly swept away the old order or ancien regime. Though they had not intended it when they had helped spark the revolution, all of the perquisites of the nobility were swept away. The middle class would get guarantees of equality under the law and protection of property rights. In the aftermath of confiscation of church and noble lands, the peasants got land of their own as well as release from feudal duties. In France, as well as much of Europe, there would remain an admiration for the ideals of the revolution, embodied in the slogan, "liberté, egalité, fraternité". In spite of reactionary forces, revolution would periodically (1848, for example) sweep the continent. Freedom would spread, even to the dark reaches of Russia where the serfs would be liberated even before the slaves in the United States. But before all this would become clear, France would become an empire, and war on a colossal scale would change the psyche of Europe forever.

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The Renaissance

Age of Exploration

The Reformation

The Scientific Revolution

Thirty Years War

The Development of the English Constitution under the Stuart Kings

French Absolutism and Louis XIV

Peter I and the Modernization of Russia

Rise of Prussia and Austria

The Enlightenment

The French Revolution

The Age of Napoleon

Concert of Europe


Industrial Revolution

Liberalism, Socialism, and Marxism

The Unification of Italy and The Unification of Germany

The Age of Imperialism

Causes of the First World War

World War I: the Great War

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