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The French Revolution. The mother of the revolutions, that fantastic word which we associate with a band of freedom fighters overthrowing a tyrannical, oppressive government. The French Revolution of 1789 is considered one of the most important turning points in modern history, together with the Industrial Revolution. It spread and firmly secured ideas of equality, political participation, and civil rights, not only in the minds of France but all across Europe, and subsequently, into the world. However, the drastic changes and ideas brought political upheaval and social turmoil, and eventually, war.

Read the main causes, effects and changes the French Revolution here.

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1Ancient Regime

It all begun in the old Feudalist Regime that predominated in Europe. The society was unequally divided into social stratums with ascendancy over the other. God was the absolute Boss, and the King, his representative on Earth. Nobles and clergymen stood just below him, while trampled underneath, the commoners were crammed. Peasants, craftsmen, small landowners, and even bourgeoisie, who despite being sometimes wealthier than nobles, lacked their privileges, such as tax exemption.

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Louis XVI. King of France

In such society, where over 95% of France belonged to this amalgamation of powerless subjects, equality in front of law, freedom of speech, or political participation, were as alien to them as a TV set would have been to a Neanderthal. The progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, such as sovereignty, separation of Church and State, and meritocracy already existed, but were only known by a small and educated segment.

2The Causes of the French Revolution

Why then all of a sudden people were fed up of getting the crumbs while the nobility and clergy savoured the whole baguette? In short there is no single factor, rather a combination. As mentioned above, enlightened ideas were on the rise, and monarchs like Louis XVI of France have gone as far as to attempt abolishing privileges such as tax exemption, only to be rebuffed by the nobility and provincial authorities. In a similar manner, Joseph II of Austria attempted to limit the power of the Church and better the lot of the peasants. Again the nobility showed their teeth.

A vital factor in the path to revolution is assumed to be the financial difficulties that France was going through. Their debt had escalated beyond charts due to their participation in the Seven Years’ Wars (1756-1763) and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), when they financed the rebels against their archenemy: Great Britain. An antiquated tax collection system, worsened by the fact that nobles and Church didn’t pay a cent, and bad harvests, only increased the agony of the nation.

3# How did it start

With Louis XVI up to his neck in troubles and dragging a broke nation, he summoned the Estates-General in 1789 to provide a solution to the crisis. The Estates-General weren’t a usual feature in Absolutist France, where the King traditionally dispensed without anybody’s opinion, in fact it hadn’t been summoned since 1614. Representatives of Clergy, Nobility, and the ‘rest’ of France, were urged to meet and find ways to generate much needed income.

Traditionally each Estate had one vote, which meant that despite the Third Estate, or Commoners, representing 95% of France’s population, could be outvoted by the other two. That’s why they required that each delegate of the three Estates possessed a vote. Furthermore, when the opening session of the Estates-General took place in Versailles, on 5th May 1789, they demanded that the credentials of all deputies should be verified by the three Estates, as opposed as each Estate verifying the credentials of its members. Nobility and Clergy refused. Dicks.

The Estates-General’s stalled because of these discrepances. On 10th June 1789, the Commoners moved to a nearby tennis court, after being dislodged by orders of the King, for being a stubborn lot. They invited Nobility and Clergy, and few joined them, but declaring themselves the representatives of the people, they renamed themselves National Assembly.  On the 20th June they swore the Tennis Court Oath, agreeing not to disband until France had been given a Constitution. Failing to disband them, Louis XVI caved in and recognised their legitimacy, and once more they changed their name to National Constituent Assembly.

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The Tennis Court Oath. This drawing was performed by Jacques-Louis David, who would become a deputy for the National Convention in 1793

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4# Storming the Bastille

Paris was rife with uneasiness. News of troops gathered to disperse the Assembly, brought a unfriendly mass of Parisians to the gates of the Bastille, a royal prison associated with royal authority, on the 14th July. There were other riots across Paris, but because of the symbolic value of the Bastille, its storming by the angry mob it is celebrated as today as one of the critical events that led to the flare-up of the Revolution. Acts of violence against nobility were already taking place, and the King, fearing to loose what little control he still enjoyed, backed down and commended himself to the Assembly.

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The Storming of the Bastille

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5# Activities and goals of the Revolution

What follows next was a constant and escalating reforms, of whom the most known are the Abolition of Feudalism, including nobility’s privileges, serfdom, the payment of seigneurial dues, and the Church Tithe. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen followed on August 1989, cementing the principles that gives legitimacy to our modern states today. It declared that power emanates from the people, stressed equality in front of the law, and criticised privileges of social classes.

A Constitution was adopted in 1791, brandishing many of the precepts of the Declaration, including a parliament, the Legislative Assembly, to represent the common will. Meanwhile the ‘dechristianization’ in France continued apace, following the abolition of the Tithe. Church property was confiscated, monastic orders abolished, and a drastically reduced Clergy was transformed into state employees.  However, the state took a step too further when it forced the Clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the Constitution. This produced a severe schism between constitutional and non-jurors, which extended over the general population. Several areas of France, especially the west countryside, rose in arms against the new government as a result.

Louis XVI thwarthed attempt to flee France, the famous flight to Varennes, to gather help from émigrés and Austria in order to restore absolutism, together with the threats of intervention from Austria and Prussia, turned the public opinion against the King. On 10th August 1792, the radical Commune of Paris, incited another mob to march to the Palace of the Tuileries, killing the guards, and taking the King into custody.

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The King and his family, in disguise, are discovered, and arrested

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6# The Terror

As a result of this radicalisation, a National Convention was elected through a sort of universal male suffrage to replace the Legislative Assembly. On 21st September 1792 it abolished the monarchy and France became de iure a Republic. It didn’t take long however to be froth with factionalism, only worsened by the war against Austria and Prussia from mid-1792, the unpopular religious settlement, and the hated military conscriptions.

Paris specially, was a powder keg. Girondins (moderates) and Montagnards (Radicals) vied for power in the National Convention, the latter with the support of the Jacobins (radical political clubs), the Sans-Culottes (popular militant partisans), and the Paris Commune. Amidst an atmosphere of exacerbated hate against the monarchy, and the Austrian and Prussian invaders who wanted to rescue the captive King, Louis XVI was guillotined on the 21st January 1793.

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Execution of Louis XVI, called citizen Louis Capet by the supporters of the Revolution 

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The setup of a Revolutionary Tribunal and a Committee of Public Safety, together with the consolidation of power of the Montagnards-Jacobins faction in May 1793, came a period of political repression known as ‘The Terror’. Under the leadership of the Committee of Public Safety, presided by Maximilien Robespierre, its most prominent Jacobin and Montagnard member, the Committee directed mass arrests and executions between June 1793 and July 1794, when Robespierre himself was finally beheaded for behaving like a bad boy. During the Reign of Terror, 300.000 people were arrested, of whom 17.000 were executed and over 10.000 died in prison or without trial, including the Girondins. How convenient.

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Maximilien Robespierre 1758-1794. He became the face of the Terror

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7# Revolutionary Wars

In 1791 Austria and Prussia signed the declaration of Pillnitz, stating their support for Louis XVI. The Legislative Assembly of France took it as a threat, and on 20th April 1792, they declared war on the enemies of the nation. An almost uninterrupted state of war lasted until 1802, known as War of the First Coalition and War of the Second Coalition, which gradually included other countries such as Russia, Great Britain, Spain, and the Dutch Republic. Throughout, France stood their ground despite obvious disadvantages like the political upheaval, waves of crime and rebellion in the countryside, and war on simultaneous fronts and against several enemies.

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The Battle of Valmy is considered a turning point in the War of the First Coalition, and hinted the potential of the revolutionary armies of France

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With close to 28 million inhabitants, France was the most populous country in Europe, and with the introduction of mass conscription (levée en masse), the beneficial introduction of meritocracy in the army (where officialdom was no longer restricted to noble birth) together with the massive mobilisation of the country’s resources, allowed France to made important territorial gains, including the set-up of sister republics in Netherlands, Switzerland, and the north Italian republics.

8# But was the French Revolution successful?

Gauging the effects of the Revolution is complicated, especially because of its transformation into the First French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte’s lead in 1804, until it was finally defeated in 1815, and because Absolutism was eventuallu restored in the figure of Louis XVIII, brother of Louis XVI. Therefore, all political changes were apparently short-lived.

The military changes the revolution brought and mentioned before are more obvious. Armies of the Ancient Regime were formed more often than not by mercenaries, relatively small, and heterogenic in terms of weapons and uniforms. However, the revolutionary and Napoleonic armies of France were huge, sometimes exceeding half a million, patriotic citizens defending the state. A new concept brought to the table by the French Revolution and that gave birth to the first modern army.

In terms of political changes the Revolution would have to wait to finally see its ideas take root. The Restoration of 1815 attempted to sweep under the carpet all most of the liberal ideas of the Revolution, but miserably fail. Nationalism emerged, the expression of national will that underpins our modern states, with a new game and vocabulary of politics, Left Vs Right, which owes its existence to the National Convention of 1792, when revolutionary deputies would sit on the left of the speaker, and conservatives sat on the right.

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The National Convention trials Louis XVI. Although not the first monarch to be trialled in European history, the adoption of sovereignity by France made it very significant

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In order to survive against the wars, the French Revolution appealed to national unity, a political credo that all nations nowadays recur too often to supress minorities, or force homogeneity. And even a more questionable legacy is that of The Terror, which served as a precedent for future retribution against the so called ‘enemies of the state’. This embryo of political repression would be refined and brought on a massive scale during the Stalinist purges between 1936 and 1938, in the Soviet Union.

Other important changes like centralisation and civil code owe more to Napoleon, the ambiguous French statesman and general who oscillates between traitor of the revolution, and protector of its values. But the biggest legacy of the Revolution are its ideas of liberty and equality, stressed under the most famous Revolutionary motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Today these rights of man and citizen are embedded, not only in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the International Bill of Human Rights of the United Nations, but also in Constitutions of many countries, and on the minds of thousands of millions of people as their fundamental rights.   

9# The Timeline of the French Revolution

  • 5th May 1789. The Estates-General convey in Versailles
  • 17th June 1789. The Third State declare themselves the National Assembly
  • 20th June 1789. The National Assembly swears the Tennis Court Oath
  • 14th July 1789. The Bastille is stormed
  • 4th August 1789. The National Assembly abolishes Feudalism
  • 26th August 1789. The National Assembly publishes the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
  • 20-21st June 1791. Flight to Varennes
  • 27th August 1791. Prussia and Austria sign the Declaration of Pillnitz
  • 3rd September 1791. The National Constituent Assembly adopts the 1791 constitution transforming France into a Constitutional Monarchy
  • 1st October 1791. The National Legislative Assembly is established as the parliament
  • 20th April 1792. France declares war to Austria
  • 10th August 1792. The Tuileries Palace is stormed and Louis XVI is put under protection of the Legislative Assembly
  • 20th September 1792. The National Convention becomes the new government of France. Battle of Valmy
  • 21st September 1792. The National Convention abolishes the monarchy and declares the republic
  • 21st January 1793. Louis XVI is guillotined
  • 1st February 1793. France declares war against Great Britain
  • 6th April 1793. The Committee of Public Safety is created
  • 24th June 1793. New Constitution
  • 16th October 1793. Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, is guillotined
  • 27th July 1794. Coup d’état of 9 Thermidor
  • 28th July 1794. Robespierre is guillotined.
  • 2nd November 1795. The Directory assumes power
  • 2nd March 1796. Napoleon is appointed commander-in-chief of army in Italy
  • 18th October 1797. Treaty of Campo Formio. The War of the First Coalition ends
  • 1st July 1798. Napoleon lands in Alexandria and begins his famous Egyptian Campaign
  • 29th November 1798. The War of the Second Coalition begins
  • 9th November 1799. Coup of 18 Brumaire. General Napoleon Bonaparte takes power as First Consul of France
  • 25th March 1802. Treaty of Amiens. End of the War of the Second Coalition
  • 18th May 1804. Napoleon is granted the title Emperor of the French. De Iure end of the First French Republic