The period of the French Revolution in the history of France covers the years between 1789 and 1799, in which democrats and republicans overthrew the absolute monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. While France would oscillate among republic, empire, and monarchy for 75 years after the First Republic fell to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution nonetheless spelled a definitive end to the ancien régime, and eclipses all subsequent revolutions in France in the popular imagination.
See main article Causes of the French Revolution.
Taking of the Bastille July 14 1789
Many factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners and with individuals of all classes who had come under the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment. As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.
Certainly, causes of the revolution must include all of the following:
- Resentment of royal absolutism.
- Resentment of the seigneurial system by peasants, wage-earners, and a rising bourgeoisie.
- The rise of enlightenment ideals.
- An unmanageable national debt, both caused by and exacerbating the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
- Food scarcity in the years immediately before the revolution.
- The rise of an ambitious bourgeoisie and, to a lesser extent, of the lower classes.
Proto-revolutionary activity started when the French king Louis XVI (reigned 1774 – 1792) faced a crisis in the royal finances. The French crown, which fiscally exactly equated to the French state, owed considerable debt. During the régimes of Louis XV (ruled 1715 – 1774) and Louis XVI several different ministers, including Turgot and Jacques Necker, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlements (law courts), which the nobility dominated.
The subsequent struggle with the parlements in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of the disintegration of the ancien régime. In the ensuing struggle:
- Protestants regained their rights.
- Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of finances.
- Louis XVI promised to convoke the Estates-General within five years.
After Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne's resignation on August 25, 1788, Necker again took charge of the nation's finances. The king agreed on August 8, 1788 to convene the Estates-General in May 1789 — for the first time since 1614.
The Estates-General of 1789
For a more detailed description of the events of August 8, 1788 – June 17, 1789, see Estates-General of 1789.
The prospect of an Estates-General highlighted the conflict of interest between, on the one hand, the First and Second Estates (the clergy and nobility respectively) and, on the other, the Third Estate (in theory, all of the commoners; in practice dominated by the middle class or bourgeoisie). This was mainly the working class.
According to the model of 1614, the Estates-General would consist of equal numbers of representatives of each Estate. The Third Estate demanded, and ultimately received, double representation (which they already had in the provincial assemblies). When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on May 5, 1789, however, it became clear that the doubled representation had not changed the balance of power: voting would occur "by orders", which meant that the collective vote of the 578 representatives of the Third Estate would have no more effect than that of each of the other Estates.
Royal efforts to focus solely on taxes failed totally. The Estates-General reached an immediate impasse, debating (with each of the three estates meeting separately) its own structure rather than the nation's finances.
The National Assembly
For a more detailed description of the events of June 17, 1789 – July 9, 1789, see National Assembly.
On May 28, 1789, the Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes (English: "Commons"), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. They proceeded to do so, completing the process on June 17. Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People". They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them.
Louis XVI shut the Salle des États where the Assembly met; the Assembly moved their deliberations to the king's tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (June 20, 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did forty-seven members of the nobility. By June 27 the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, the Assembly reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly.
In Paris, the Palais Royal and its grounds became the site of a continuous meeting. Some of the military leaned toward the popular cause.
The National Constituent Assembly
The storming of the Bastille
For a more detailed discussion, see Storming of the Bastille.
On July 11, 1789, King Louis, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished the reformist minister Necker and completely reconstructed the ministry. Much of Paris, presuming this to be the start of a royal coup, moved into open rebellion. Some of the military joined the mob; others remained neutral.
On July 14, 1789, after four hours of combat, the insurgents seized the Bastille prison, killing the governor, Marquis Bernard de Launay and several of his guard. Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners — four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender — the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the ancien régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; his assassination took place en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal.
The king and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. Lafayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly — leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath — became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The king announced his return from Versailles to Paris, where, on July 27, he accepted a tricolore cockade, as cries of "Long live the Nation" changed to "Long live the King".
Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles — little assured by the apparent and, as it proved, temporary reconciliation of king and people — started to flee the country as émigrés, some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.
Necker, recalled to power, experienced but a short-lived triumph. An astute financier but a less astute politician, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people's favor in his moment of apparent triumph.
Insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux, as part of a general agrarian insurrection known as "la Grande Peur" (the Great Fear).
The abolition of feudalism
For a more detailed discussion, see The abolition of feudalism.
On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.
While there would follow retreats, regrets, and much argument over the racbat au denier 30 ("redemption at a thirty-years' purchase") specified in the legislation of August 4, the course now remained set, although the full process would take another four years.
The appearance of factions
For a more detailed discussion, please see National Constituent Assembly.
Factions within the Assembly began to become clearer. The aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury led what would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution. The "Royalist democrats" allied with Necker, inclined toward organising France along lines similar to the British constitutional model: they included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, Comte de Virieu.
The "National Party", representing mainly the interests of the middle classes, included Honoré Mirabeau, Lafayette, and Bailly; Adrien Duport, Barnave and Alexander Lameth represented somewhat more extreme views.
The abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political center and the left.
In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.
Looking to the United States Declaration of Independence for a model, on August 26, 1789 the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect.
Towards a constitution
For a more detailed discussion, see Towards a constitution.
The National Constituent Assembly functioned not only as a legislature, but also as a body to draft a new constitution.
Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the crown on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. The king retained only a "suspensive veto": he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely.
The people of Paris thwarted Royalist efforts to block this new order: they marched on Versailles on October 5, 1789. After various scuffles and incidents, the king and the royal family allowed themselves to be brought back from Versailles to Paris.
The Assembly replaced the historic provinces with eighty-three départements, uniformly administered and approximately equal to one another in extent and population.
Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, to date the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, with the Assembly giving Necker complete financial dictatorship.
Toward the Civil Constitution of the Clergy
For a more detailed discussion, see Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
To no small extent, the Assembly addressed the financial crisis by having the nation take over the property of the Church (while taking on the Church's expenses), through the law of December 2, 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, the government introduced a new paper currency, assignats, backed by the confiscated church lands.
Further legislation on February 13, 1790 abolished monastic vows. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on July 12, 1790 (although not signed by the king until December 26, 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy also made the Catholic church an arm of the secular state.
In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and the bishop of Clermont led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement ("jurors" or "constitutional clergy") and the "non-jurors" or "refractory priests" who refused to do so.
From the anniversary of the Bastille to the death of Mirabeau
For a more detailed discussion of the events of July 14, 1790 - September 30, 1791, see From the anniversary of the Bastille to the death of Mirabeau.
The Assembly abolished the symbolic paraphernalia of the ancien régime -- armorial bearings, liveries, etc. -- which further alienated the more conservative nobles, and added to the ranks of the émigrés.
On July 14, 1790 and for several days following, crowds in the Champ-de-Mars celebrated the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille ; Talleyrand performed a mass; participants swore an oath of "fidelity to the nation, the law, and the king"; the king and the royal family actively participated.
The electors had originally chosen the members of the States-General to serve for a single year, but by the Tennis Court Oath, the communes had bound themselves to meet continuously until France had a constitution. Right-wing elements now argued for a new election, but Mirabeau carried the day, asserting that the status of the assembly had fundamentally changed, and that no new election should take place before completing the constitution.
In late 1790, several small counter-revolutionary uprisings broke out and efforts took place to turn all or part of the army against the revolution. These uniformly failed. The royal court, in François Mignet's words, "encouraged every anti-revolutionary enterprise and avowed none."  (http://www.outfo.org/literature/pg/etext06/8hfrr10.txt)
The army faced considerable internal turmoil: General Bouillé successfully put down a small rebellion, which added to his (accurate) reputation for counter-revolutionary sympathies.
The new military code, under which promotion depended on seniority and proven competence (rather than on nobility) alienated some of the existing officer corps, who joined the ranks of the émigrés or became counter-revolutionaries from within.
This period saw the rise of the political "clubs" in French politics, foremost among these the Jacobin Club: according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, one hundred and fifty-two clubs had affiliated with the Jacobins by August 10, 1790. As the Jacobins became more of a broad popular organization, some of its founders abandoned it to form the Club of '89. Royalists established first the short-lived Club des Impartiaux and later the Club Monarchique. They attempted unsuccessfully to curry public favor by distributing bread; nonetheless, they became the frequent target of protests and even riots, and the Paris municipal authorities finally closed down the Club Monarchique in January 1791.
Amidst these intrigues, the Assembly continued to work on developing a constitution. A new judicial organization made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The king would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war. The Assembly abolished all internal trade barriers and suppressed guilds, masterships, and workers' organisations: any individual gained the right to practise a trade through the purchase of a license; strikes became illegal.
In the winter of 1791 the Assembly considered, for the first time, legislation against the émigrés. The debate pitted the safety of the State against the liberty of individuals to leave. Mirabeau carried the day against the measure, which he referred to as "worthy of being placed in the code of Draco."  (http://www.outfo.org/literature/pg/etext06/8hfrr10.txt)
However, Mirabeau died on March 2, 1791. In Mignet's words, "No one succeeded him in power and popularity," and before the end of the year, the new Legislative Assembly would adopt this "draconian" measure.
The Flight to Varennes
For a more detailed discussion, see Flight to Varennes.
Louis XVI, opposed to the course of the revolution, but rejecting the potentially treacherous aid of the other monarchs of Europe, cast his lot with General Bouillé, who condemned both the emigration and the assembly, and promised him refuge and support in his camp at Montmedy.
On the night of June 20, 1791 the royal family fled the Tuileries. However, the next day the overconfident king had the imprudence to show himself. Recognised and arrested at Varennes (in the Meuse département) late on 21 June, he returned to Paris under guard.
Pétion, Latour-Maubourg, and Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, representing the Assembly, met the royal family at Épernay and returned with them. From this time, Barnave became a counsellor and supporter of the royal family.
When they reached Paris, the crowd remained silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the king. He and Queen Marie Antoinette remained held under guard.
The last days of the National Constituent Assembly
For a more detailed discussion, please see The last days of the National Constituent Assembly.
With most of the Assembly still favoring a constitutional monarchy rather than a republic, the various groupings reached a compromise which left Louis XVI little more than a figurehead: he had perforce to swear an oath to the constitution, and a decree declared that retracting the oath, heading an army for the purpose of making war upon the nation, or permitting anyone to do so in his name would amount to de facto abdication.
Jacques Pierre Brissot drafted a petition, insisting that in the eyes of the nation Louis XVI was deposed since his flight. An immense crowd gathered in the Champ-de-Mars to sign the petition. Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins gave fiery speeches. The Assembly called for the municipal authorities to "preserve the public tranquility". The National Guard under Lafayette's command confronted the crowd. The soldiers first responded to a barrage of stones by firing in the air; the crowd did not back down, and Lafayette ordered his men to fire into the crowd, resulting in the killing of as many as fifty people.
In the wake of this massacre the authorities closed many of the patriotic clubs, as well as radical newspapers such as Jean-Paul Marat's L'Ami du Peuple. Danton fled to England; Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.
Meanwhile, a renewed threat from abroad arose: Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick William II of Prussia, and the king's brother Charles-Phillipe, comte d'Artois issued the Declaration of Pilnitz which considered the cause of Louis XVI as their own, demanded his total liberty and the dissolution of the Assembly, and promised an invasion of France on his behalf if the revolutionary authorities refused its conditions.
If anything, the declaration further imperilled Louis. The French people expressed no respect for the dictates of foreign monarchs, and the threat of force merely resulted in the militarization of the frontiers.
Even before the "Flight to Varennes" the Assembly members had determined to debar themselves from the legislature that would succeed them, the Legislative Assembly. They now gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution, showed remarkable fortitude in choosing not to use this as an occasion for major revisions, and submitted it to the recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing "I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad; and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal". The king addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. The Assembly set the end of its term for September 29, 1791.
Mignet has written, "The constitution of 1791... was the work of the middle class, then the strongest; for, as is well known, the predominant force ever takes possession of institutions... In this constitution the people was the source of all powers, but it exercised none."  (http://www.outfo.org/literature/pg/etext06/8hfrr10.txt)
The Legislative Assembly and the fall of the Monarchy
For a more detailed description of the events of October 1, 1791 - September 19, 1792, see main article The Legislative Assembly and the fall of the French monarchy.
The Legislative Assembly
Under the Constitution of 1791, France would function as a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly, but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers.
The Legislative Assembly first met on October 1, 1791 and degenerated into chaos less than a year later. In the words of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica: "In the attempt to govern, the Assembly failed altogether. It left behind an empty treasury, an undisciplined army and navy, and a people debauched by safe and successful riot."
The Legislative Assembly consisted of about 165 Feuillants (constitutional monarchists) on the right, about 330 Girondins (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries) on the left, and about 250 deputies unaffiliated with either faction.
Early on, the king vetoed legislation that threatened the émigrés with death and that decreed that every non-juring clergyman must take within eight days the civic oath mandated by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Over the course of a year, disagreements like this would lead to a constitutional crisis.
The politics of the period drove inevitably toward war with Austria and its allies. The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins specifically wanted to wage war. The King (and many Feuillants with him) expected war would increase his personal popularity; he also foresaw an opportunity to exploit any defeat: either result would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution throughout Europe. Only some of the radical Jacobins opposed war, preferring to consolidate and expand the revolution at home. The Austrian emperor Leopold II, brother of Marie Antoinette, may have wished to avoid war, but he died on March 1, 1792.
France declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The French Revolutionary Wars had begun.
After early skirmishes went badly for France, the first significant military engagement of the war occurred with the Franco-Prussian Battle of Valmy (September 20, 1792). Although heavy rain prevented a conclusive resolution, the French artillery proved its superiority. However, by this time, France stood in turmoil and the monarchy had effectively become a thing of the past.
On the night of August 10, 1792, insurgents, supported by a new revolutionary Paris Commune, assailed the Tuileries. The king and queen ended up prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy: little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins.
What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. When the Commune sent gangs of assassins into the prisons to butcher 1400 victims, and addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example, the Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. This situation persisted until the Convention, charged with writing a new constitution, met on September 20, 1792 and became the new de facto government of France. The next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. This marked the beginning of Year One of the French Revolutionary Calendar.
For a more detailed description of the events of September 20, 1792 - September 26, 1795, see National Convention.
The legislative power in the new republic fell to a National Convention, while the executive power came to rest in the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins became the most influential party in the Convention and on the Committee.
In the Brunswick Manifesto, the Imperial and Prussian armies threatened retaliation on the French population should it resist their advance or the reinstatement of the monarchy. As a consequence, King Louis was seen as conspiring with the enemies of France. January 17, 1793 saw King Louis condemned to death for "conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety" by a weak majority in Convention. The January 21 execution led to more wars with other European countries. Louis' Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, would follow him to the guillotine on 16 October.
When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup, backed up by force effected by mobilising public support against the Girondist faction, and by utilising the mob power of the Parisian sans-culottes. An alliance of Jacobin and sans-culottes elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. Policy became considerably more radical.
The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793 - 1794). At least 1200 people met their deaths under the guillotine - or otherwise - after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. The slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and the trials did not proceed over-scrupulously.
In 1794 Robespierre had ultraradicals and moderate Jacobins executed; in consequence, however, his own popular support eroded markedly. On July 27, 1794, the French people revolted against the excesses of the Reign of Terror in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction. It resulted in moderate Convention members deposing and executing Robespierre and several other leading members of the Committee of Public Safety. The Convention approved the new "Constitution of the Year III" on 17 August 1795; a plebiscite ratified it in September; and it took effect on September 26, 1795
For more information on the events of September 26, 1795 - November 9, 1799, see French Directory.
The new constitution installed the Directoire (English: Directory) and created the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament consisted of 500 representatives (the Conseil des Cinq-Cent (Council of the Five Hundred)) and 250 senators (the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Seniors)). Executive power went to five "directors," named annually by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by the Conseil des Cinq-Cent.
The new régime met with opposition from remaining Jacobins and royalists. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte gained much power.
On November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon staged the coup which installed the Consulate; this effectively led to his dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as emperor, which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.
Other revolutions in French history
This article incorporates text from the public domain 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica. This article makes use of the public domain History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 (http://www.outfo.org/literature/pg/etext06/8hfrr10.txt), by François Mignet (1824), as made available by Project Gutenberg.
- Chronicle of the French Revolution - (1989) By Jean Favier, Director of the French Archives in Paris, France with Anik Blaise, Serge Cosseron, and Jacques Legrand in cooperation with more than 35 historians/authors
- la revolution en debat - By Francois Furet: a short but important book with a series of articles by Francois Furet about the historiography of the revolution.