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Before I start my paper on the French Revolution, I would like to give a little background information about it. The French Revolution began in 1789 and lasted for about ten years. Before it ran its course, the political and social order of France had been dramatically altered. The rule of the absolute monarch had ended, and feudalism had been destroyed. The new middle class, or bourgeoisie, had gained political power at the expense of the aristocracy and the Church (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

The revolution in France was a far more complex and profound outbreak than the American Revolution. It not only upset established institutions in France, but also had consequences throughout Europe (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).


The revolution had many causes. The success of the American Revolution aroused republican sentiment, even among the aristocracy. The growing economic power of the bourgeoisie was another factor. Middle-class and peasant demands for a voice in government and for abolition of the aristocratic privilege brought about the first phase of the revolution. The second phase, called the Reign of Terror, expressed the dissatisfaction among the members of the lower middle class and the city workers (Kennedy 8).

Attempts at Reform

Economic Reforms

In 1774, King Louis XVI appointed Robert Turgot as minister of finance. He tried to institute changes in taxation to balance France’s economy. This change would put the burden of high taxes on the more privileged classes to relieve the less privileged peasants. This earned Turgot hostility from Queen Marie Antoinette, and Louis dismissed him in 1776 (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

Jacques Necker, who took Turgot’s place, aimed primarily at reducing the gigantic public debt. He too fell into disfavor at court and was replaced in 1781. The finance ministers who followed Necker continued to press unsuccessfully for revision of the tax system. When the Parliament of Paris was asked in 1788 to approve such a program, it insisted that only a full meeting of the estates general could authorize new taxes. As you may have guessed, the king called for a meeting of the estates general in May 1789 (Morris 21).

Reform of the Estates General

The estates general consisted of three major classes of France. The clergy was the first estate, the nobility was the second estate, and the commoners were the third estate. In previous meetings each order had voted as a unit. This way the privileged classes always combined to outvote the third estate. The commoners demanded double representation, consolidation into a single chamber, and individual voting (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

Louis expected to use the meeting of the new estates general only to reform the country’s finances. However, the commoners hoped to achieve broad political reforms. The estates general met at Versailles on May 5, 1789. It was doomed from the start. The king made it clear he wanted the representatives to vote by estates rather than individually. The third estate pressed its demand for individual votes, and the estates general remained deadlocked for six weeks (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

Finally, on June 17, 1789, the third estate declared itself a national assembly, with or without the others. This action began the French Revolution (Tackett 115).

The National Assembly

Within a few days the national assembly was joined by about half the clergy and by a number of nobles. On June 20, 1789, the commoners assembled in a nearby building and took the “Tennis Court Oath”. They resolved not to disband until they had come up with a new constitution for France (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

On June 23, Louis announced the recess of the estates general. The members of the national assembly refused to leave. Four days later, Louis commanded the nobles and clergy to join the assembly, but at the same time he ordered a large number of troops to Versailles. He again dismissed Necker, whom he had previously reinstated in office (Tackett 132).

Fall of the Bastille

News of Necker’s dismissal and the massing of troops caused angry crowds to gather in Paris. On July 14 a mob stormed and captured the Bastille, a little used, but hated symbol of royal authority. This forced Louis to make important settlements. He recalled Necker and recognized the Commune of Paris as the legitimate city government. The troops at Versailles were disbanded, and a national guard under the Marquis de Lafayette was established to maintain order in Paris. The July 14th uprising had violent effects throughout the provinces, where armed peasants rose against their landlords (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

End of Feudalism

Under pressure of the peasant rioting the assembly quickened its course of action. On August 4, it decreed the abolition of special privileges and of exemption from taxation for the clergy and nobility. This action abolished the entire feudal system. The assembly also drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This declaration was used as an opening to the constitution, which was adopted two years later (Markoff 95).

In October 1789 the people of Paris heard that royal troops from Flanders had arrived at Versailles. A mob of women armed with clubs marched on the palace, demanding food. Lafayette used his military force to guard the royal family, but several of the queen’s bodyguards were killed. Louis then agreed to return to Paris with the mob. During this time many nobles fled from France (Trinephi 1998).

A year and a half of relative quiet followed the king’s removal to Paris. The assembly governed the country and passed additional reforms. Church estates were nationalized, and the new civil constitution of the clergy proclaimed that bishops and priests were to be elected by the people and paid by the state. Many of the clergy refused to take an oath of allegiance to the civil constitution, and more than half joined in opposing the revolution (Trinephi 1998).

Constitution of 1791

The assembly completed its work on the constitution in 1791. France became a limited monarchy. The king lost his traditional power over the clergy. His ability to propose or veto legislature was strictly limited. In June 1791, Louis decided to flee the country. In September, Louis finally accepted the new constitution that had been drawn up by the assembly (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

French Revolutionary Wars

France declared war on Austria in April 1792, beginning the French Revolutionary Wars. As he led his Austro-Prussian troops into France, the Duke of Brunswick issued a manifesto threatening the destruction of Paris if the royal family was harmed. Th king’s brothers made even more violent threats. The effect of these threats was clearly seen by Marie Antoinette. “The Count of Provence is betraying and assassinating us,” the queen declaimed. “All we can do now is to die” (Markoff 126).

Fall of the Monarchy

On August 10, 1792, the people of Paris stormed the Tuileries. They deposed and imprisoned the king and demanded a new form of government. They also replaced the legal commune with the revolutionary Commune of Paris, which was led by George Danton. For the next six weeks, Danton was virtually a dictator. He rallied a volunteer army that checked Brunswick’s advance at Valmy. He also tolerated the slaughter of about 2,000 royalists and royal sympathizers by the Paris mob (Elliott 1996).

National Convention

A new legislative body, the national convention, met on September 21, 1792. It formally abolished the monarchy and proclaimed the “one and indivisible” First French Republic. Louis XVI was found guilty of treason, and on January 21, 1793, he was decapitated. Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate nine months later. However, the convention was widespread with political conflict. Led by Jean Paul Marat and Maximilen Robespierre, the radical Jacobins seized their opportunity to gain control of the convention when the Girondists opposed the king’s execution. The Jacobins incited an armed Paris mob to besiege the convention hall on May 31, 1793. Most of the Girondists leaders were arrested and later executed (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

Reign of Terror

Once in control, the Jacobins created the Committee of Public Safety, which was dominated by Robespierre and operated as a dictatorship until July 1794. With the foreign war proceeding satisfactorily, the committee initiated the bloodiest internal phase of the revolution. Throughout France, royalists, Girondists, federalists, and others merely suspected of criticizing the committee were imprisoned or killed. By July 1794, several hundred “enemies of the revolution” were being executed every week (Morris 147).

Meanwhile, the Reign of Terror had become a struggle for supremacy among the revolutionaries. Robespierre had become the acknowledged master of France (Morris 148).

The Revolutionary Constitution

The convention had drawn up the “constitution of the year III,” which was put into effect in 1795. Executive power was delegated to a Directory of five men. The members of a new legislature, which comprised an upper and lower house, chose them (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

Under the new constitution, however, only persons who paid land or property taxes or who have served at the front could vote. Members of the national convention also ensured their tenure in office by decreeing that two-thirds of the new legislature must be chosen from the retiring convention. The people of Paris responded to this decree with another uprising. However, it was quickly crushed by government troops under a little known artillery officer, Napoleon Bonaparte (Kennedy 126).

France Under the Directory

France’s government under the Directory was incompetent and corrupt. Some tried to restore the monarchy, and a final outburst led by revolutionary extremists had to be silenced. In March 1797 the first truly free elections under a French republican government produced another crisis for the Directory. The republicans who controlled the government called on Napoleon, then securely in control of the army (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

During its last two years in office the directory ruled as a dictatorship. It dealt as best it could with the numerous economic and religious problems that flared up in the Vendee and in other rural departments of the country (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

It was Napoleon who resolved the religious schism and ended the French Revolutionary Wars. For the first time in nearly ten years, France enjoyed orderly government (Encyclopedia Encarta 1998).

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