“”It was the French and not the American Revolution that set the world on fire, and it was consequently from the course of the French Revolution, and not from the course of events in America or from the acts of the Founding Fathers, that our present use of the word "revolution" received its connotations and overtones everywhere, this country not excluded.
|—Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, 1963.|
| A guide to|
|Aux armes, citoyens !|
The French Revolution, (French: Révolution française), was a period of social and political upheaval in France which began in 1789. During the Revolution, the French people overthrew the Bourbon monarchy, established a secular republic, engaged in various instances of political violence, and began the French Revolutionary Wars which ravaged Europe over the following decades. Most historians consider the Revolution to have ended due to the actions of French general Napoleon Bonaparte, although whether it ended when he became First Consul or Emperor depends on who you ask. It is one of the most influential events in human history.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Constitutional monarchy
- 3 First Republic
- 4 The Directory
- 5 Legacy
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 References
The Ancien régime
The social order of pre-Revolutionary France is called the ancien régime, which means "old order" in French. Under the old order there was no concept of citizenship; every person in France was a direct subject of the king. The Estates-General was the closest thing to a representative body the French people had. The Estates-General was an informal assembly divided into three orders: the clergy, the nobility, and everyone else. The assembly was constantly undermined by the inability of the three estates to agree on policy.
The First Estate, the clergy of the Catholic Church, had a great degree of wealth and political influence over the king. Despite owning 10% of all the land in France as well as collecting huge amounts of money through compulsory donations, the First Estate was exempt from taxation. This became one of the factors causing general resentment against the clergy and organized religion. The Second Estate, the nobility, was also generally despised by the populace due to the popular sense that nobles were extravagantly wealthy, sexually immoral, and unfaithful to each other and to the nation. The Third Estate, which represented the commoners and capitalists, was by far the largest group. Unfortunately, it had almost no influence over the decisions of the French government or the other three Estates due to their low social status. These social tensions were inflamed when influential clergyman Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès published "What is the Third Estate?", a pamphlet which attacked the traditional privileges of the nobility and pointed out that since the Third Estate comprised most of France's population and economy, it deserved to wield political power. This struck a chord with France's wealthy capitalists, who had the money to afford the fripperies of nobility but could not earn or wield the power they felt they deserved.
One of the most hated aspects of the pre-Revolution social order was the taille. It was a Medieval-era direct tax by the king, and due to the many exemptions provided to nobles and clergy, it became an increasingly heavy burden on France's lowest classes. French peasants realized that they were shouldering the nation's tax burden while the nobles and clergy paid nothing despite their extravagant wealth and lifestyles. Over the years, and especially during the decades leading up to the Revolution, it greatly fueled popular resentment against the king and the nobility.
Social problems were exacerbated by a financial crisis that rocked France for most of the latter 18th Century. The French government had spent itself into near-bankruptcy by waging various unwise wars such as the Seven Years' War, and then financing the American Revolution almost entirely from loans. In 1783, the king's new finance minister, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, decided to try to alleviate the crisis by increasing public spending, which only worsened the problem. His proposed taxation reforms, meanwhile, failed to receive approval from France's nobility.
Apparently, God wanted the French Revolution to happen. The fall of 1788 saw one of France's worst-ever crop failures, the winter of that year saw one of France's harshest periods of cold weather, and spring 1788 brought in catastrophic flooding. France's food supply was critically low, and their backwards tariff system meant that it wasn't economically feasible for them to import more. French peasants went from spending half of their income on food to spending about 90% of their income on food. Needless to say, they were pissed. Mob violence, such as the Réveillon riots in Paris, began in 1789 and only got worse.
The National Assembly
Amid popular discontent and the ongoing financial meltdown, King Louis XVI called upon the Estates-General to advise him on how to resolve the situation. The Estates-General hadn't met since 1614, however, and the sudden call to action for them sparked a national debate over how the three Estates should be organized. Since the Third Estate represented 95% of France's population, they wanted to at least double their headcount while the other Estates fought to have the vote counted by chamber so that they could ensure the Third Estate would always be outvoted 2-1. The king caved to the desires of the nobles and priests and decreed that the vote would be counted by chamber. This brought centuries of class tensions to a boil, and the Third Estate refused to abide by the new rules and decided to meet separately from the other two Estates. The Third Estate also re-named itself as the "National Assembly," as it represented almost all of the people of France.
The Third Estate/National Assembly moved to convene in their usual meeting hall in Versailles, but they found the door locked. Interpreting this as a hostile move by the king, they relocated to one of the palace's indoor tennis courts and swore to remain assembled and firm until the king agreed to a new national constitution. This event became known as the Tennis Court Oath.
In 1789, Paris was a city of poverty and squalor due to overcrowding, the famine, and France's financial clusterfuck. These horrible conditions led to looting and food riots for much of 1788 and 1789. Political developments involving the National Assembly caused paranoia to sweep the city. The king began gathering troops at Versailles, causing the people of Paris to fear that they were about to be attacked. These fears were only heightened when the king sacked Jacques Necker, his recently-appointed but popular finance minister, and appointed a staunch conservative in his place.
The Parisians formed a mob after Necker's sacking, and they started smashing up government offices and stealing weapons, often with the help of the city guard. The revolutionaries soon found that their weapons were useless without gunpowder. Luckily for them, the city guard had stored quite a bit of gunpowder in the Bastille, the king's dumping ground for political prisoners. The crowd stormed the Bastille and seized the gunpowder, although they only found a handful of prisoners, mostly white collar criminals and the insane. Nevertheless, the event galvanized the revolutionaries. It also convinced many of France's nobles to start fleeing the country.
The Great Fear
The Bastille incident spiraled outward into a general panic across rural France. Unrest had already swept France's peasantry due to the famine, but conspiracy theories about a "famine plot" by the aristocracy to destroy the revolution incited a general mobilization. Peasant mobs began attacking aristocratic manor houses, mostly seeking to destroy documentation of their own serfdom and steal food for their survival. Few people died, but huge amounts of property and resources were damaged or destroyed. The peasant revolts eventually fizzled out thanks to the efforts of French militia.
The Great Fear, as it's called today, is unusual in history because it was disorganized yet spontaneous. One theory as to how this could have happened was put forward by historian Mary Mattossian, who theorized that rye bread contaminated with the fungus ergot (which can have hallucinogenic properties) helped spark the three-week uprising. In other words, one of the most impactful events of the early Revolution may have happened because the French people were high as balls on bad LSD.
Abolition of feudalism
“”They destroyed aristocratic society from top to bottom, along with its structure of dependencies and privileges. For this structure they substituted the modern, autonomous individual, free to do whatever was not prohibited by law.... The Revolution thus distinguished itself quite early by its radical individualism.
|—François Furet, French historian.|
In response to the peasant revolts, the National Assembly met overnight on August 4th and 5, 1789 to pass a decree abolishing the feudal system. The Assembly also forbade the clergy from collecting mandatory tithes, ended special privileges for the nobility, and later waived the requirement that the peasants would have to compensate the nobles for their losses. In essence, the French peasantry became landowners for free and no longer had to support the Catholic Church if they didn't want to.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
“”Man alone has raised his exceptional circumstances to a principle. Bizarre, blind, bloated with science and degenerated--in a century of enlightenment and wisdom--into the crassest ignorance, he wants to command as a despot a sex which is in full possession of its intellectual faculties; he pretends to enjoy the Revolution and to claim his rights to equality in order to say nothing more about it.
|— Olympe De Gouges, "Declaration of the Rights of Woman".|
On the 26th of August, 1789, the National Assembly published the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen", which was more of a statement of beliefs than a legally binding document. It was written with input from Thomas Jefferson. The 17 articles drew from John Locke-ian philosophy, stating that the Assembly recognized the right to liberty, property, and representation. Unfortunately, as in the United States, these rights did not extend to everyone. The Declaration was seen as only applying to "active citizens", or men over the age of 25 who paid taxes and weren't servants. The Assembly believed that only active citizens were worthy of making political decisions.
Women, of course, were excluded from the category of "active citizen". This deliberate omission led French feminist and playwright Olympe de Gouges to publish the "Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Female Citizen" as a call to action and to expose the Assembly's declaration as discriminatory. Unfortunately, her writings had no impact on the course of the Revolution, and she was later guillotined during the Reign of Terror in retaliation for her opposition to the Revolutionary government.
In addition to abolishing the mandatory tithe, the National Assembly went one step further in November of 1789 by taking a page from the Protestant Reformation and placing all Catholic Church property under control of the state to be sold or dispensed at the government's pleasure. This action was borne out of a need to address France's financial situation, but it was also inspired by the revolutionaries' long-held hostility towards the Church. Their Enlightenment-style focus on reason and science was incompatible with Catholic religious doctrine.
In mid-1790, the Assembly passed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which sought to regulate the Church and eliminate its corruption. To that end, the new "constitution" limited the number of bishops, redrew dioceses, made higher clergy subject to public election, and classified all clergy as employees of the state. Of course, subordinating the Catholic Church to the French government provoked much opposition from religious fundamentalists. The Assembly addressed that by ordering all clergy to take an oath of support for the Civil Constitution or else lose their parishes. This resulted in a schism inside the French Catholic Church, condemnations from the pope, and a full split with the papacy that wouldn't end until Napoleon Bonaparte made nice with the pope much later in 1801.
In 1791, the National Assembly annexed Avignon, a province that had been controlled by the Papal State since 1309. The seizure of Avignon was not peaceful, and the Pope's Palace was wrecked by battle.
Women's March on Versailles
Prolonged food shortages continued to impact Paris. In October 1789, a crowd of women armed themselves with kitchen knives and farm implements to demand a resolution to the food crisis. When city officials proved unresponsive, the crowd moved to the Palace of Versailles with a new purpose. They sought to convince the king to move away from the Palace and into the city of Paris, as it was believed that he would then be more beholden to the will of the people and separated from the influence of the aristocracy. The march was also in large part inspired by conspiracy theories, as rumors had spread claiming that the king's soldiers in Versailles were insulting and threatening the revolutionaries.
When the women arrived at Versailles, rain had begun to fall, so they invaded the palace and met with the National Assembly. Maximilien François de Robespierre was one of the Assembly deputies who agreed to talk with the crowd. The mob met with the king, who assured them that he would support the Assembly's recent policies, but more radical elements of the crowd fought and killed two soldiers while attempting to assassinate France's queen, Marie Antoinette. Fearing further violence, the king agreed to move to Paris, and the National Assembly relocated along with him.
Royal flight from Paris
Sheltered in the Tuileries Palace in Paris, Louis XVI was increasingly afraid of the radicalizing revolution, and he also began to feel like he was being kept prisoner in Paris. In 1791, the royal family decided to flee the city. They successfully snuck out of the city, but they were arrested on the way to Austria. The Assembly ordered him confined to the Tuileries Palace.
The National Assembly, most of whom were committed to forming a constitutional monarchy, passed a decree stating that Louis would be forgiven and would reign as monarch so long as he agreed to accept the new constitution. More radical supporters of the revolution, however, gathered to protest this decision. The incident turned violent and resulted in the Champ de Mars massacre. Paris was subsequently and consequently placed under martial law.
This event fatally sabotaged any hope of a stable constitutional monarchy for France. Anti-monarchial sentiments boiled over. The Constitution of 1791, which would have been the foundation law of the new France, lasted less than a year.
War of the First Coalition
Concerned about the situation in France and encouraged by the exiled nobles, Austria and Prussia jointly issued a statement called the Declaration of Pillnitz. On its face, the declaration was a threat, essentially warning that the two countries would go to war to protect France's monarchy and aristocracy should they be overthrown by the revolutionaries. Despite the seeming belligerence, the declaration was actually a half-hearted bluff because Austria and Prussia neither liked each other nor wanted to go to war on behalf of Frenchmen. The National Assembly, however, took it seriously. They declared a preemptive war in 1792.
France's army had been hollowed out by the Revolution, as most of its officers had fled the country or deserted, and its remaining manpower was made of raw volunteers who had signed up in a patriotic fervor. The opening campaigns of the war were thus disastrous, as Austrian and Prussian armies smashed their way towards Paris with little opposition. Blame for this fell on the king and his nobles, as the French public believed that he was intentionally sabotaging the war effort (somehow) so that Austria and Prussia would restore his power. On August 10th radicals in Paris, organized by Robespierre, seized political control in Paris, turning it into an "Insurrectionary Commune" before storming the Tuileries Palace to imprison the king and kill his guards. The September Massacres followed, as the radicals stormed Paris' prisons to execute the detained nobles, guards, soldiers, priests, and even non-political prisoners, killing between 1,100 and 1,400 prisoners.
With the monarchy effectively overthrown, the National Assembly became the National Convention. On the 21st of September, 1792, the National Convention officially abolished the French monarchy and proclaimed France as a Republic.
The National Convention struggled with class tensions. The generally two-sided political system of the Republic saw conflict between the "Montagnards" (later/also called the "Jacobins"), led by Robespierre, who favored granting power to the lower classes, and the "Girondins", who wanted to see France governed by the rich. The Girondins generally had the upper hand, and they would soon get the blame for the deteriorating situation against the First Coalition.
On October 6th, the Convention created the "Republican Calendar" designed to help secularize France. The calendar set the first day of history at the birth of the Republic, and it replaced the seven-day week with a ten-day cycle called a "decade". Day names were changed to "primidi" ("oneday"), "duodi" ("twoday"), "tridi" ("threeday", etc.), "quartidi", "quintidi", "sextidi", "septidi", "octidi", "nonidi" and "décadi". The months were also given new names, this time based on the seasons. The Republican year began with the month of "Vendémiaire" (from the Latin ‘vindemia’, grape harvest), which ran from the 22nd of September to the 21st of October. This was followed by "Brumaire" (from the French ‘brume’, fog), "Frimaire" (from the French ‘frimas’, hoarfrost), "Nivôse" (from the Latin ‘nivosus’, snowy), "Pluviôse" (from the Latin ‘pluviosus’, rainy), "Ventôse" (from the Latin ‘ventosus’, windy), "Germinal" (from the Latin ‘germen, germinis’ a bud), "Floréal" (from the Latin ‘floreus’, flowery), "Prairial" (from the French ‘prairie’, meadow), "Messidor" (from the Latin ‘messis’, corn harvest and the Greek ‘doron’, gift), "Thermidor" (from the Greek ‘thermon’ heat and the Greek ‘doron’ gift), and finally "Fructidor" (from the Latin ‘fructus’, fruit and the Greek ‘doron’, gift).
The Convention also named every day of the Republican year, because at this point, why the fuck wouldn't they? Even more ridiculous, this setup also ensured that the beginning of the Republican year was never actually on the same day.
If you find this shit confusing, you're not alone. Napoleon Bonaparte abolished the calendar in 1805 after becoming First Consul. Sadly, that means this calendar was still inflicted on France for 13 goddamn years.
Execution of Louis XVI
Throughout November of 1792, the Convention rigorously debated over whether or not they actually had the authority to put Louis XVI on trial. The people certainly wanted it to happen, as first the king had fled from Paris, then had seemingly been responsible for the losing war. The reason the Convention was so reluctant, however, is due to the September Massacres; the recent violence caused worries that the Revolution was slipping into mob rule. Robespierre, meanwhile, argued that no trial was necessary, because the people of France had already delivered a verdict when they dragged him out of his palace and imprisoned him. Finally, the Convention decided that the king would be put on trial, but that he would be tried before the Convention itself rather than a criminal court.
Unfortunately for Louis, while his legal team was masterful, Louis himself performed very poorly under cross-examination. While that alone normally wouldn't spell doom, Louis was performing for a chamber that was already heavily biased against him. The Convention found the king guilty by a unanimous vote, but the question of his fate became a political one. The Jacobins wanted him dead, but the Girondists feared the consequences that could come if they executed him. Louis was condemned by a narrow vote, and he was executed by guillotine. His final words are reported to be, "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."
The execution caused horror across Europe, and it likely made it impossible for Europe's monarchies to coexist with Revolutionary France.
Reign of Terror
“”Terror is the order of the day. This is how to do away instantly with both royalists and moderates and the restless, counter-revolutionary scum. The royalists want blood, well, they shall have the blood of the conspirators, the likes of Brissot and Marie Antoinette.
|—Bertrand Barère, member of the Committee of Public Safety.|
In the aftermath of the king's execution, the Jacobins moved swiftly to consolidate their political power and to ensure that France would not be completely destabilized by the shocking event. To this end, they purged the more moderate Girondins from power and then executed France's queen, Marie Antoinette. They then established the Committee of Public Safety (under which the public was not safe) in April 1783, which would eventually be dominated by Robespierre. In June, radical Parisians took over the Convention, demanding price controls on bread and restriction of franchise to the poor; they convinced the French National Guard to arrest 31 Girondin Convention members. With the Jacobins now completely in control, they transformed France into a dictatorship.
Under Robespierre's control, the Committee of Public Safety began to operate as an autonomous unit, separate from the National Convention. It expanded to 12 members, who each handled separate tasks; Robespierre took control of the secret police and religious policy. Robespierre then used the Committee as a bludgeon to seize control of the Convention. Any member of government who expressed opposition to Robespierre or even concern over his methods was denounced as a traitor to the Revolution and executed. By mid-1794, Robespierre was elected President of the Convention.
The Reign of Terror intensified after the uprising in the Vendée (on France's western coast). The provincial residents took arms after the execution of the king, also reacting against the attacks on religion and rising taxes. The civil war in the region lasted years, and the Revolutionary government's brutal retaliations against civilians left up to 200,000 people dead. Meanwhile, Robespierre's committee continued to hunt perceived counter-revolutionaries, arresting at least another 200,000 people and guillotining thousands.
In its role as the head of French religious policy, the Committee established the "Cult of Reason" as France's state religion in 1793. It was intended to replace Christianity with worship of the Enlightenment's ideals, and the religion began with a festival placing busts of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Benjamin Franklin in the Cathedral of Notre Dame. With the negative reaction to this campaign, Robespierre replaced the religion with the "Cult of the Supreme Being" after coming to power, essentially shifting state policy from atheism to deism. He held a great Festival of the Supreme Being in Paris in mid-1794. Robespierre also defended his new religion by ordering mass arrests and executions of Christian clergymen and their supporters because of course he did.
By June 1794, the French people were tired of the unrelenting executions and the increasingly totalitarian rule of Maxamilien Robespierre. In July (8 Thermidor), Robespierre gave a speech indirectly incriminating multiple unnamed members of the National Convention as traitors. This caused a general fear in the legislative body that there would be yet another purge. This backfired dramatically on 9 Thermidor, when the deputies of the Convention shouted Robespierre into silence and finally ordered the arrest of him and his closest allies. The people of Paris rose up to free Robespierre from prison, but the National Convention sent the armed forces after him. There were rumors (still unconfirmed) that Robespierre tried to pull a Hitler and kill himself before he could be arrested again. Regardless, Robespierre was guillotined in the same place where he had put so many of his own enemies to death. The "First White Terror" followed, in which those who had been victimized by Robespierre during the Reign of Terror hunted down and killed his allies.
Following Robespierre's downfall, the French government held another election and reorganized itself into the "Directory" in 1795. France's new government placed executive power into a council of five men who would be chosen by a bicameral legislature. This decentralized system was a deliberate attempt to avoid the type of autocracy Robespierre had inflicted on France. Unfortunately, like with the Articles of Confederation in the United States, having such a weak executive backfired tremendously. The Directory perpetually lacked the funds and power to do what it wanted, and thus was forever unstable. The Directory did little of note, and most of the significant things that happened during its rule were simply part of the lead-up to Napoleon's dictatorship.
Finishing the First Coalition
During Robespierre's reign, his mass conscription policies helped the French army push the Coalition out of its land and even conquer the area that is now Belgium. The Directory continued these gains by launching a three-pronged attack. General Jean Baptiste Jourdan would attack into western Germany from the Low Countries, General Jean Victor Moreau would invade southern Germany, and General Napoleon Bonaparte would attack Austria through northern Italy. Most of these attacks were ultimately unsuccessful, but Napoleon's invasion of Italy was a success that brought him into the national spotlight. He unilaterally negotiated and signed the Treaty of Campo Formio, forcing Austria to cede the Low Countries to France and reorganize its holdings in northern Italy into a French client state.
Quasi-War with the United States
The French Revolution caused tensions between the fledgling United States and France for a variety of reasons. This growing animosity resulted in America's first ever overseas war.
While the French Revolution turned Europe into a continent-sized battlefield, the United States sought to remain neutral. France understood why, considering the US' distance from Europe and its military and financial weakness. Therefore, Revolutionary France had no objection to American neutrality so long as the United States always favored French interests in its foreign policy. The French were soon thereafter enraged when the Americans negotiated the Jay Treaty with Great Britain to resolve some outstanding issues after the American Revolution as well as to facilitate trade between the two nations. The French considered this a breach of the Franco-American Alliance, and they began seizing American ships that dared trade with Britain.
The US, experiencing its own financial SNAFU, also started refusing to pay back the loans France had given it during the American Revolutionary War, arguing that the debt had been owed to the French monarchy rather than the French Republic. Matters came to a head in 1797 with the "XYZ Affair", in which American diplomats in Paris were intercepted by the French Foreign Minister's intermediaries and ordered to pay reparations and bribes before being allowed to see the Foreign Minister. Already outraged, the American diplomats departed France altogether after the Foreign Minister informed them that he would not cease attacks on American shipping.
In 1798, the US broke off all of its treaties with France, and the US Navy spent the next two years battling French ships in the Caribbean. This conflict is now referred to as the "Quasi-War" because neither side technically admitted that they were at war. The United States performed impressively against the more powerful French fleet, losing only one ship to enemy action. In 1800, after the Directory had been replaced by Napoleon's Consulate, the US and France made peace with the Treaty of Mortefontaine. Among the treaty stipulations was a friendly dissolution of the Franco-American Alliance, effectively a mutual and amicable divorce.
The Brumaire Coup
The Second Coalition formed in 1799 in response to France's invasion of Switzerland in support of revolutionaries there. The Directory mishandled the war and thus lost much of what Napoleon had fought for. Returning from his adventures in Egypt, Napoleon took control of France's armies and crushed the Second Coalition.
Napoleon was approached by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a member of the Directory, who had realized the weaknesses inherent in this form of government. Together, the men gathered the legislative bodies of France and used soldiers to force them into dissolving the French government. Napoleon and Sieyès reorganized France's executive into a three-member Consulate, with Napoleon as First Consul. Napoleon subsequently used a series of falsified elections to make himself into France's dictator, and eventually emperor. Napoleon's rise to power stabilized France and marked the end of the turbulent revolutionary period.
All countries have a mythology that defines who they are as a people and as a nation. The French Revolution stands out to the French people, differently than the American Revolution does for citizens of the United States, because it was an internal movement against the established government. That has led to a belief within France that "We the people" are not just the ones who elect the government; we can take it down, too. Consequently, French workers are always striking, as part of their French heritage, as if to say, "We are still here. Don't overlook us."
Another consequence of the Revolution was the overthrow of the divine right of kings. As a result, the struggle against religion is associated in France with the struggle against tyranny. This line of thought reached its height in 1905 when the French instituted a policy of laïcité, a highly aggressive form of separation of church and state.
The musical theme of the French Revolution, "La Marseillaise", was composed in 1792 as a marching song for the Army of the Rhine, and remains the country's national anthem.
- It's important to note that Napoleon Bonaparte is essentially the sequel to this page.
- February Revolution
- October Revolution
- Egyptian revolution of 2011
- Joan of Arc
- Toussaint Louverture
- Protestant Reformation
- Taiping Rebellion
- A bunch of French Revolution history from John Green
- Mike Duncan of the History of Rome fame has done a 54 episode (not counting about a half dozen "supplementals") super-spectacular on the French Revolution.
- French Revolution. Wikiquote.
- Understanding When and How the French Revolution Ended. ThoughtCo.
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- McPhee, Peter (2012). Robespierre: A Revolutionary Life. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-11811-7. p. 217.
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- The Quasi-War: America's First Limited War, 1798-1801. Donald R. Hickey.
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- Napoleon’s Constitution. Lumen Learning.