The French Revolution, mother of revolutions, that fantastic word which we inevitably associate with a band of just freedom fighters overthrowing a tyrannical, oppressive government. Although truth is always more complicated than that, the French Revolution is doubtless one of the most important turning points in modern history, together with the Industrial Revolution. During those eventful years, modern ideas of equality, political participation, and civil rights, appeared to stay in the minds of the French, then Europe and subsequently, the world. However, these ideas and the drastic changes implemented also brought political upheaval and social turmoil, and eventually, war. Read all about it below.

1Ancient Regime

It all begun with the old Feudalist Regime that predominated in Europe, and which unequally divided society into social stratums with ascendancy over the lower. God sat on top, and the King acted as his representative on Earth, while nobles and clergymen stood just below him. But these were a privileged minority that trampled a vast majority of commoners beneath them. Peasants, craftsmen, small landowners, and even bourgeoisie, who despite being often wealthier than the nobles, lacked their privileges, such as tax exemption or the right to hold prestigious public offices.

Louis XVI. King of France. Painting by Antoine-François Callet. Exposed in Palace of Versailles. Source

In such society, where over 95% of frenchmen 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 well-known ideas of the Enlightenment, such as sovereignty, separation of Church and State or meritocracy, already existed, but were only known by a small and educated minority.

2Causes of the French Revolution

Why then, all of a sudden, French commoners realised that nobility and clergy savoured the whole of the baguette while they had to settle with the breadcrumbs? In short, there is no single factor, rather a combination. As mentioned above, enlightened ideas were on the rise, and several European monarchs, including Louis XVI of France had gone as far as to attempt abolish privileges such as tax exemption, only to be rebuffed by the nobility and recalcitrant provincial authorities. Similarly, Joseph II of Austria had attempted to limit the power of the Church and better the lot of the peasants, until the nobility had flashed their fangs.

Nonetheless, a key factor in triggering the French Revolution is largely accepted to be the financial difficulties that France had been going through during the second half of the 18th century. 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 had financed the American 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# The outbreak

Up to his neck in troubles, king Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General in 1789, in order to find a solution to the crisis. The Estates-General hadn’t been a usual feature in the kingdom of France, where the King had traditionally dispensed without anyone’s opinion, in fact, the Estates-General hadn’t been summoned since 1614. Representatives of clergy, nobility, and commoners were urged to meet and find ways to generate much needed income.

Traditionally each Estate had one vote, which meant that the commoners, or Third Estate, which represented 95% of France’s subjects, could and was often outvoted by the other two. This time however, they demanded each delegate of the three Estates to be able to cast a vote. Furthermore, when the opening session of the Estates-General took place in Versailles, on May 5th 1789, they also 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 dug their heels, and the Estates-General stalled because of the apparently unsolvable discrepances. On June 10th 1789, the Third State moved to a nearby tennis court after being dislodged by orders of the King, for being a stubborn lot. They invited nobility and clergy to join them and some did, and declaring themselves the representatives of the people, they renamed themselves the National Assembly.  On June 20th June they swore an oath, the Tennis Court Oath, agreeing not to disband until France was given a Constitution. With support for the assembly growing by the day, Louis XVI caved in and recognised their legitimacy, and they renamed themselves as the National Constituent Assembly, with the goal of giving France a constitution.

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

4# Storming the Bastille

Paris however, remained rife with uneasiness. News of royal troops gathered to disperse the Assembly, brought a not-so-friendly mass of Parisians to the gates of the Bastille, a royal prison and symbol of royal authority, on July 14th. That same day other riots broke all across Paris, but because of the symbolic value of the Bastille, its storming by an angry mob it’s celebrated as one of the critical events that led to the flare-up of the Revolution. Acts of violence against nobility were already taking place elsewhere, and the King, fearing to loose what little control he still enjoyed, once more backed down and commended himself to the Assembly.

The Storming of the Bastille. Source

5# Activities and goals of the Revolution

A vertiginious and escalating stream of reforms followed, the most known being the abolition of feudalism, including nobility’s privileges and serfdom, the payment of seigneurial dues, or 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 opposed privileges of social classes.

A Constitution was adopted in 1791, embodying the precepts of the Declaration, including a parliament, the Legislative Assembly, to represent the common will. Meanwhile the ‘dechristianization’ in France moved apace after the abolition of the Tithe, with Church property confiscated, monastic orders abolished, and a drastically reduced clergy reduced overnight into state employees.  However, the state took a step too far when it forced the clergy to sign an oath of loyalty to the Constitution, with the uninteded effect of producing a severe schism between those who signed, constitutionals, and those who didn’t, non-jurors. The conflict spread over the general population, with several regions of France, especially in the west, rising in arms against the new government.

The famous flight to Varennes, the king’s thwarthed attempt to flee France in order to find help in Austria in order to restore absolutism; together with the threat of intervention from Austria and Prussia, turned the public opinion against Louis XVI. On August 10th 1792, the radical Commune of Paris, incited another mob to march to the Palace of the Tuileries, where they killed the guards and took the helpless King into custody.

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

6# The Terror

As a result of these turn of events, a National Convention was elected through a sort of universal male suffrage to replace the Legislative Assembly, which on September 21st 1792, abolished the monarchy and transforming France into a republic. It wasn’t long however, before it was froth with factionalism, only worsened by the outbreak of war against Austria and Prussia in mid-1792, the unpopular religious settlement, and the hated military conscriptions.

Paris remained all time 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 (local government). Amidst an atmosphere of hate and violence adressed against the monarchy, and exacerbated by the Austrian and Prussian declarations to restore the disgraced French monarch, Louis XVI was guillotined on January 21st 1793.

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

The setup of a Revolutionary Tribunal and a Committee of Public Safety, together with the consolidation in power of the Montagnard-Jacobins faction in May 1793, heralded a period of political repression known as ‘The Terror’. Presided by Maximilien Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety, de facto ruling the nation, directed mass arrests and executions between June 1793 and July 1794, when Robespierre himself was finally overthrown during the Thermidorian reaction. During the Terror, it’s estimated that 300.000 people were arrested, of whom 17.000 were executed and over 10.000 died in prison, most without trial.

Maximilien Robespierre, 1758-1794. Source

7# The Revolutionary Wars

In 1791, Austria and Prussia signed the declaration of Pillnitz, declaring their support for Louis XVI. The Legislative Assembly of France took it as a threat, and on April 20th 1792, they preemptively declared war on Austria. An almost uninterrupted state of war ensued until 1802, the Wars of the First Coalition and Second Coalition, which saw the involvement of all European key players, including Russia, Great Britain, Spain, the Italian and German States, and the Dutch Republic. Throughout France held their ground, despite its obvious disadvantages such as political upheaval, unhindered brigandage and rebellion in the countryside, and war on simultaneous fronts and against multiple foes.

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. Source

With 28 million inhabitants France was the most populous country in Europe at the time, 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 those of 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 in the north of Italy.

8# Was the French Revolution successful?

Gauging the effects of the Revolution is complicated, especially after consolidating into the First French Empire under Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804, and because Absolutism was eventually 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. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the subsequent Bourbon restoration attempted to sweep under the carpet all the enshrined ideas of the Revolution, but miserably failed. 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 on the right.

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. Source

In order to survive the Revolutionary wars, the French Revolution appealed to national unity, a political credo that all nations nowadays recur too often to supress minorities or enforce homogeneity. An even 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. The biggest legacy of the Revolution remain and will always be its concepts of liberty and equality, stressed under the most famous Revolutionary motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité. Today these rights of man and citizen remain as the fundamental pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Bill of Human Rights of the United Nations, and in the constitutions of many countries.

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 Tuilleries 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 the 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 Egyptian and Syrian Campaigns
  • 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 takes the title Emperor of the French. End of the First French Republic