French Revolution

The French Revolution marked a turning point in the history of humankind as it put an end to the medieval monarchical absolutism, feudal laws and social inequality. It introduced for the first time the idea of republicanism based on “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity”, which influenced the entire continent of Europe and also the world.

Causes of the French Revolution

The causes of the French revolution include the political, social and economic aspects that were prevalent in France before the outbreak of the revolution. Here is a brief summary of the same.

Political Causes

France was ruled by a dynasty called House of Bourbon, which firmly believed in Political absolutism and the Divine Right theory –that they were representatives of God and they were answerable only to God.

Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) was a strong and powerful ruler from this House of Bourbon. He continued his predecessors’ work of creating a centralized state governed from the capital. He sought to eliminate the remnants of feudalism from France and, by compelling many members of the nobility to inhabit his lavish Palace of Versailles, succeeded in pacifying the aristocracy. He compelled and seduced the nobles into becoming his ceremonial courtiers, further weakening their power.

By all these, Louis XIV became one of the most powerful French monarchs and consolidated a system of absolute monarchical rule in France that endured until the French Revolution. But his wars and his ways ruined the economy of France.

His successors Louis XV and Louis XVI were weak administrators. Louis XVI (1754-1793) was the most incompetent ruler and his wife and queen, Marie Antoinette interfered too much into the administration. She was thoroughly ignorant of the sufferings of the French people. However, she always favoured and protected the interests of the French nobles. She was such an opponent of the financial reforms, that she stood against everybody who dared to mention the word “economy” within her hearing.

Let Them Eat Cake

The phrase Let them eat cake is often attributed to Marie Antoinette, but there is no evidence she ever uttered it, and it is now generally regarded as a “journalistic cliché”. It may have been a rumour started by angry French peasants as a form of libel. Let them eat brioche.”

Social Causes

The French society was divided into the three estates. The first estate was made up of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. It owned 10 percent of the land in France. It provided education and relief services to the poor and contributed about two percent of its income to the government. They had no political power but remained loyal to the king.  The Second Estate was made up of rich nobles, much of whose wealth was in land. Although they made up only two percent of the population, they were owners of 20 percent of the land and paid almost no taxes. The majority of the clergy and the nobility scorned enlightenment ideas as radical notions that threatened their status and power as privileged persons. Both the first and second estate led a life of ease and pleasure without bothering about the wretched condition of the masses. About 98 percent of the people belonged to the Third Estate and they were denied all privileges. Traders, lawyers, owners of industries, government servants, peasants and workers were in this category. While the nobles and the clergy were exempted from paying taxes, the masses paid all the taxes.

The Third Estate itself was made up of three groups, which differed greatly in their economics.  First among them was the Bourgeoisie – the merchants and artisans. These people were well educated and believed strongly in the ideals of liberty and equality. They paid high taxes and did not get the privileges that were meant for the two privileged estates. Some of them were very rich, even richer than the nobles but it pained them that their wealth did not entitle them to a greater degree of social status and political power. The second group was of the cooks, servants, barbers and other service providers. They were paid low wages and frequently out of work, they often went hungry. If the cost of bread rose, mobs of these workers might attack carts of grain and bread to steal what they needed.

The largest group within the Third Estate was of the Peasants. The peasants comprised more than 80 percent of total population of France. They paid around half their income in dues to nobles, tithes to the church, and taxes to the king’s agents. They even paid taxes on such basic staples as salt.  Hence it was said: “the nobles fight, the clergy pray and the people pay”.

Peasants joined the urban poor in resenting the clergy and the nobles for their privileges and special treatment. The heavily taxed and discontented Third Estate became the driver of the change.

Economic Causes

The financial condition of France was very critical during the reign of Louis XVI. The national debt had increased beyond the limit. The national income was less than national expenditure.

The result was that the king tried to mobilize national income by selling important offices of the government. At last, the king appointed financial experts Turgot and Jacques Necker as Director-General of Finances. They tried to curtail royal expenditure and improve the income to the government. But their measures did not receive the support of the nobles. On their advice the queen Marie Antoinette removed them. Later, Calonne was appointed to look into the financial crisis. But he was not able to do anything but to levy fresh taxes. Therefore, Louis XVI was forced to convene the Estates General after a gap of 175 years, on May 5th, 1789.

Impact of the French Philosophers

The revolutionary ideas of these philosophers spread throughout France and created awareness among the masses. The French intellectuals gave the motto “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” which became the watchwords of the revolution of 1789.

Inspiration from the American War of Independence

The independence of the thirteen American colonies from England provided a boost to the French people. The French captain Lafayette with his soldiers returned from America after helping the colonies to secure their independence. His experience in America along with the fighting spirit for the cause of democracy reached the ears of the French and inspired them. Therefore, they decided to put an end to the despotic rule of the Bourbons.

Major Events of the French Revolution

Convening of the Estates-General

The financial condition of France was very critical during the reign of Louis XVI. The national debt had increased beyond the limit. King tried to mobilize national income by selling important offices of the government but in vain. At last, he appointed financial experts Turgot and Jacques Necker as Director-General of Finances. They tried to curtail royal expenditure and improve the income to the government. But their measures did not receive the support of the nobles. On their advice, queen Marie Antoinette removed them. Later, Calonne was appointed to look into the financial crisis. But he was not able to do anything but to levy fresh taxes. Louis XVI was forced to convene the Estates General after a gap of 175 years, on May 5th, 1789 with an objective to impose further taxes upon the Third and Second Estate. The Second Estate forced him to call a meeting of the Estates-General—an assembly of representatives from all three estates—to get approval for the tax reform. Thus, the beginning point of the French Revolution was the bankruptcy of the French Government.

National Assembly

Under the assembly’s medieval rules, each estate’s delegates met in a separate hall to vote, and each estate had one vote. The two privileged estates could always outvote the Third Estate. The Third Estate delegates, mostly members of the bourgeoisie, whose views had been shaped by the ideas of Liberty and Fraternity, were eager to make changes in the government. They insisted that all three estates must meet together and that each delegate have a vote. This would give the advantage to the Third Estate, which had as many delegates as the other two estates combined.

However, the King took the side of the Nobles. He ordered the Estates-General to follow the medieval rules. The delegates of the Third Estate, however, became more and more determined to wield power. Thus, there was a deadlock.

A decision was taken by the Third Estate that it itself will name it the National Assembly and will pass laws and reforms in the name of the French people. On 17th June 1789, the third Estate declared itself as the National Assembly. The king got alarmed and prevented them from entering the hall. But, the members of the National Assembly went to a nearby Tennis Court and took an oath to frame a new constitution. This is known as Tennis Court Oath.

On 23rd June 1789, a special session of Estates General was held. The king declared the acts of the Third Estate as illegal. He also ordered that the three Estates should meet separately. But the third Estate refused to accept the king’s orders. Finally, Louis XVI submitted to the will of the third Estate, which represented the common people. He ordered the three Estates to sit together. Thus the formation of National Assembly was completed.

Fall of the Bastille

The King though recognised the National Assembly, yet he decided to suppress it. A large number of soldiers were brought to Versailles and Paris. Necker, the popular minister was also dismissed. On hearing this, the mob of Paris became violent.

They attacked the State prison called the Bastille, murdered the guards and freed the prisoners. The fall of the Bastille was regarded in France as a triumph of liberty.

After the fall of the Bastille, the peasants rose against the nobles. Riots began against the aristocrats all over France. Nobles were attacked and their castles stormed. They also destroyed the records of their feudal services.

  • The nobles voluntarily surrendered their feudal rights and the privileges on 4th August 1789.
  • Feudalism and serfdom were abolished.
  • The principle of equality was established.
  • Class distinctions were abolished.

There was a hike in the prices of bread in Paris. On 5th October, a large number of women went to the King’s palace at Versailles to make a petition. They were not satisfied with the reply of the queen and hence they brought with them the king, the queen and their son to Paris.

Work of the National Assembly (1789 – 1791)

The National Assembly styled itself the Constituent Assembly. It drew up the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The new constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly provided for a limited monarchy to France.

The titles of the nobles were abolished and Judiciary was remodelled. The method of torture was abolished. New central and local courts were established. Judges were to be elected. Drastic action was also taken against the church. Absolute religious toleration was proclaimed. The collection of tithes by the church was abolished. Then, measures were taken for the nationalization of church properties. After drafting the new constitution, the National Assembly dissolved itself in 1791.

The Split of National Assembly

Despite the new government, old issues such as food shortages and government debt remained. Angry cries for more liberty, more equality, and more bread soon caused the Revolution’s leaders to turn against one another. The Legislative Assembly split into three general groups, each of which sat in a different part of the meeting hall. These were the Radicals, Moderates and Conservatives.

  • They sat on the left side of the hall
  • They were called left-wing and said to be on the left
  • They opposed the king and the idea of a monarchy
  • They wanted sweeping changes in government and proposed that common people have full power in a republic
  • They sat in the center of the hall and were called centrists
  • They wanted some changes in government, but not as many as the radicals
  • They sat on the right side of the hall
  • They were called rightwing and said to be on the right
  • They upheld the idea of a limited monarchy
  • They wanted few changes in government

Apart from the above three groups, there were two main more extreme groups viz. Émigrés and the sans-culottes.

  • The Émigrés comprised the nobles and others who had fled France during the peasant uprisings. They wanted to undo the Revolution and restore the Old Regime. They can be called the Extreme Right group.
  • The sans-culottes “those without knee breeches” made the most Radical group of all. This group typically comprised the urban labourers, wage-earners and small shopkeepers. Though ill-clad and ill-equipped, they had made up the bulk of the Revolutionary army during the early years of the French Revolutionary Wars. The Upper classes of France wore fancy knee-length pants, but the sans-culottes wore regular trousers. They wanted a greater voice in government, lower food prices, and an end to food shortages. Although they did not have a role in the assembly, they soon discovered other ways to exert their power as a group, especially by influencing one of the political clubs that developed later.
Political Clubs

The political clubs sprang up in different quarters. Of these, the most conspicuous were the Jacobian Club and Cordelier Club.

  • The Jacobian Club was led by Robespierre, a radical democrat.
  • The Cordelier Club was led by Danton.
  • The Girondists were a group of eloquent young men and stood for establishing a republican form of government. Madame Roland was a prominent member of the Girondists.

The Wars with Prussia and Austria

As per the new constitution, the new Legislative Assembly met in 1791. To curtail the activities of the Nobles, the Legislative Assembly passed laws. The king did not approve of these laws and used his veto against them.

When the revolution broke out many of the nobles (Émigrés) managed to escape from France. They carried out propaganda against the revolution in France and tried to mobilize support from other countries. Austria and Prussia came forward to help them. King Leopold of Austria issued the famous Declaration of Pilnitz against the revolutionaries on 27th August 1791, whereby Austria and Prussia proposed that France put Louis back on the throne. The Legislative Assembly responded by declaring war on Austria in April 1792. Prussia later joined Austria in the war.

Austria defeated the ill equipped revolutionary army. The wrath of the revolutionaries turned against the French king. On 10th August 1792 the mob attacked the King’s palace at Tuileries. The mob brutally massacred the guards and imprisoned Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their children in a stone tower. Elections were ordered for a National Convention to prepare another new constitution for the country.

This was followed by the “September Massacres”. The Radicals at Paris led by Danton massacred 1500 suspected supporters of the French king. Then the French army defeated the Austrian army at Valmy.

The National Convention (1792 – 1795)

Faced with the threat of the radicals, the members of the Legislative Assembly gave up the idea of a limited monarchy. They set aside the Constitution of 1791, declared the king deposed, and dissolved their assembly, calling for the election of a new legislature. After the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, the National Convention met in 1792. It abolished monarchy and declared France as a republic. By around the same time, the French army won a war against Austria and Prussia, thus now there was no danger from foreign.  Adult male citizens were granted the right to vote and hold office, however, women were not given the right to vote. The delegates reduced Louis XVI’s role from that of a king to that of a common citizen and prisoner. Then, guided by radical Jacobins, they tried Louis for treason and found him guilty. The king Louis XVI after a summary trail was found guilty of treason was executed by guillotine on 21st January 1793.

Three days later the queen Maire Antoinette was also executed by guillotine.

The Terror grips France

The National convention was controlled by the Jacobians, who formed the majority and were major force to carry out the execution of the King.

After the execution of the King and the Queen, the Great Britain, Holland, and Spain joined Prussia and Austria in an alliance known as the First Coalition in early 1793. The France was attacked from several sides and suffered a string of defeats. The Jacobin leaders took extreme steps to meet the new dangers. The National Convention decreed a draft into the army of 300,000 French citizens between the ages of 18 and 40. Within a year, the army had grown to 800,000.

Apart from the foreign armies, the Jacobins faced threats from within the country from moderates, peasants, who were horrified by the beheading of the king, priests who would not accept government control and rival leaders who were power hungry.  The Jacobians had set up the Revolutionary Tribunal to deal with the moderates. It was the beginning of the Terror in France and was the final phase of the Revolution. It was also the darkest period of the Revolution.

Riots broke out in many places like Lyons, Marseilles and other cities. In 1793, the first coalition was the revolutionary government. The Jacobians suspended the constitution and created the Committee of Public Safety with full powers to deal with the people causing the internal threats.

Maximilien Robespierre was the leader of this committee. He slowly gathered all control in his hands. As head of the committee, he decided who should be considered enemies of the republic. It was said that this committee often tried people in the morning and guillotined the same afternoon.  For one year, Robespierre governed France nearly as a dictator, and the period of his rule became known as the Reign of Terror. The Reign of Terror put down all the riots staged by the royalists within the country. Around 2100 people were killed by guillotine before he himself was sent to hell via guillotine in 1794.

End of Revolution

With the fall of Robespierre the Reign of Terror gradually came to an end. The Revolutionary Tribunal was suspended and the functions of Committee of Public Safety were restricted. The Jacobian Club was closed.

The National Convention at last took up its long neglected task of framing of a constitution for the French Republic. The executive was entrusted to a Directory, consisting of five members. The legislative power was entrusted to two houses called the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of the Ancients.  Napolean Bonapartee was then at Paris and he was entrusted with the task of defending the Convention against the Parisian mob. He dispersed the mob and saved the Convention and began his brilliant career. On October 26, 1795 the convention declared itself dissolved and the Directory took charge of the French government.

Results of the Revolution

  • The French Revolution of 1789 inaugurated a new era in the history of the mankind. The ideas of “liberty, equality and fraternity” spread to other parts of the world. The Bourbon monarchy was abolished.
  • The Revolution rejected tyranny, divine right, conservatism, and feudal vestiges associated with bourbon rule in France.
  • At the same time it failed to establish a permanent Republic in France. The French Revolution, after a violent turn led to the emergence of a great dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Latest E-Books