The French Revolution was a defining event in modern European history that started in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutes such as utter monarchy and the feudal system. The turmoil was caused by widespread discontent with the French monarchy and the poor economic strategies of King Louis XVI, who met his death by decapitate, as did his wife Marie Antoinette. Although it failed to attain all of its goals and at times degenerated into a messy bloodbath, the French Revolution played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power intrinsic in the will of the people.
As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution, and excessive spending by King Louis XVI and his predecessor, had left the country on the edge of bankruptcy.
Not only were the royal coffers exhausted, but two decades of poor harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled turbulence among farmers and the urban poor. Many expressed their worry and resentment toward a regime that levied heavy taxes – yet failed to offer any relief – by rioting, looting and striking.
In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, offered a financial reform package that included a universal land tax from which the advantaged classes would no longer be exempt.
To garner support for these measures and envision a growing aristocratic revolt, the king called the Estates-General (les états généraux) – an assembly representing France’s clergy, decency 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 zone would assemble lists of grievances (cahiers de doléances) to present to the king.
France’s population had changed noticeably since 1614. The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now symbolized 98 percent of the public but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies.
In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to organize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto—in other words, they sought voting by head and not by status.
While all of the commands shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in specific were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.
By the time the Estates-General convened at Versailles, the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into resentment between the three orders, eclipsing the original objective of the meeting and the authority of the man who had organized it.
On June 17, with talks over process 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 scatter until constitutional reform had been attained.
Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal aristocracies had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI reluctantly absorbed all three orders into the new assembly.
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 passionate about the recent breakdown of royal power, Parisians grew freaked as rumors of an looming military coup began to circulate. A popular revolt culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now remembered in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution.
The wave of revolutionary fervor and prevalent hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of mistreatment, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite.
Known as the Great Fear (la Grande peur), the agrarian uprising hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to eliminate feudalism on August 4, 1789, signing what the historian Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order.”
On August 4, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a statement of democratic doctrines grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The document declared the Assembly’s commitment to replace the ancient régime with a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.
Enlisting 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 punitive economic times.
For months, its members wrestled with fundamental questions about the shape and expanse of France’s new political landscape. For example, who would be responsible for electing delegates? Would the clergy owe loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church or the French government? Perhaps most importantly, how much authority would the king, his public image further enfeebled after a failed attempt to flee the country in June 1791, retain?
Adopted on September 3, 1791, France’s first written constitution reverberated the more moderate voices in the Assembly, establishing a constitutional monarchy in which the king enjoyed royal veto power and the capability to appoint ministers. This compromise did not sit well with persuasive radicals like Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins and Georges Danton, who started drumming up popular support for a more republican form of government and for the trial of Louis XVI.
The darkest period of the French Revolution is called the Reign of Terror which lasted from 1793 to 1794. During this time, a man named Robespierre led the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. He sought to stamp out any disapproval to the revolution, so he called for a rule of “Terror.” Laws were passed that said anyone alleged in treason could be arrested and executed by guillotine. Thousands of people were implemented including Queen Marie Antoinette and many of Robespierre’s political rivals.
Many of the new political notions and alliances of the French Revolution were shaped in political clubs. These clubs encompassed the powerful Jacobin Club (led by Robespierre), the Cordeliers, the Feuillants Club, and the Pantheon Club.
On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of Girondins who had borne 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 remonstrated the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, now led by a young and popular general named Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular displeasure, incompetence and, above all, political corruption. By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to preserve their authority and had yielded much of their power to the generals in the field.