The French Revolution Begins



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The French Revolution and Napoleon, 1789-1815

The French Revolution Begins

  • In the 1700s, France was considered the most advanced country of Europe.

  • Large population, prosperous foreign trade, and was the center of the Enlightenment; French culture was widely praised and imitated throughout the rest of the world

  • Success however can be deceiving; bad harvests, high prices, high taxes, and disturbing questions raised by the Enlightenment ideas of Locke, Rousseau, and Voltaire

I. The Old Order

  • In the 1770s, the social and political system in France, the Old Regime, remained in place

  • Under this system, the people of France were divided into three large social classes, or estates

  1. The Privileged Estates

  • First and Second Estates were privileged (access to high offices, exempt from paying taxes, and hated Enlightenment ideas because they threatened their status); made up 3% of the population

  • First Estate, The Roman Catholic Church’s clergy, owned 10% of the land in France, provided education and relief services to poor, gave 2% of income to government

  • Second Estate, was made up of the rich nobles, 2% of population owned 20% of land and paid almost no taxes

  • Clergy and nobility scorned Enlightenment ideas as radical notions that threatened their status and power as privileged persons

  1. The Third Estate

  • The Third Estate, was made up of 97% of the population, paid high taxes, made up of three groups

  • The first group, the Bourgeoisie, or middle class were bankers, factory owners, merchants, professionals, etc.

  • Believed in Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality

  • Some were as wealthy as nobles and felt that wealth should bring a higher social status and more political power

  • The workers of France’s cities made up the 2nd poorest group in 3rd Estate, includes trades-people, apprentices, laborers and domestic servants; paid low wages and often out of work

  • Often went hungry; if cost of bread rose, mobs of workers might attack grain carts or bread shops to take what they needed

  • Peasants formed the largest group in 3rd Estate, paid about half of their income in dues to nobles, tithes and taxes.

  • Resented the clergy and the nobles for their privileges and special treatment

  • Discontented and eager for change


II. The Forces of Change

  • Other factors besides the resentment of the lower classes led to a revolutionary mood in France

  1. New ideas of government

  2. Serious economic problems

  3. Weak and indecisive leadership

  • All generated a desire for change

  1. Enlightenment Ideas

  • New views about power and authority in government were spreading among the Third Estate

  • Members were inspired by the success of the American Revolution

  • They began questioning long standing notions about the structure of society

  • Quoting Rousseau and Voltaire, they began to demand equality, liberty, and democracy

  1. Economic Troubles

  • By the 1780s, France’s once prosperous economy was in decline

  • This caused alarm among merchants and factory owners of Third Estate

  • Cost of living was rising rapidly, and crop failures because of bad weather caused a grain shortage and people faced starvation because the price of bread doubled in 1789

  • France’s government sank into debt because of extravagant spending of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

  • France had large debt already because of previous kings

  • Louis XVI borrowed a lot of money to help the American revolutionaries during the war against Great Britain; this doubled the government’s debt

  1. A Weak Leader

  • Louis XVI, was indecisive and allowed matters to drift; he had paid little attention to his government advisers

  • The queen only added to problems; she often interfered in government and often gave poor advice

  • Louis’s solution was putting off dealing with the financial crisis until he had almost no money left, he then tried to tax the nobility

  • However, the Second Estate forced him to call a meeting of the Estates-General, an assembly of representatives from all three estates-to approve this new tax; it was held on May 5, 1789 at Versailles

III. Dawn of the Revolution

  • The clergy and the nobles had dominated the Estates-General throughout the Middle Ages and expected to do so in the 1789 meeting.

  • Under old rules, each estate’s delegates met in a separate hall to vote; each estate had one vote; the two privileged estates could always outvote the Third Estate

  1. The National Assembly

  • The Third Estate delegates, made mostly of the bourgeoisie who views had been shaped by the Enlightenment, were eager to make changes in the government

  • Insisted that all three estates meet together and that each delegate have a vote

  • Even though the king sided with the nobles and the old medieval rule, Third Estate delegates became more determined to wield power

  • In a dramatic speech, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes suggested that the Third Estate delegates name themselves the National Assembly; to pass laws and reforms in the name of the French people

  • On June 17, 1789, following Sieyes’ ideas, the Third Estate voted to establish the National Assembly, in effect ending absolute monarchy and beginning of a representative government.

  • Vote was the first deliberate act of revolution

  • Three days later, the Third Estate delegates found themselves locked out of their meeting room

  • They broke down the door to an indoor tennis court, pledging to stay until they had drawn up a new constitution

  • This pledge became known as the Tennis Court Oath

  1. Storming the Bastille

  • In Paris, some people suggested that Louis was intent on using military force to dismiss the National Assembly

  • Others charged that the foreign troops were coming to Paris to massacre French citizens

  • People began to gather weapons in order to defend the city against attack

  • On July 14, a mob searching for gunpowder and arms stormed the Bastille, a French prison

  • After overwhelming the guards and seizing control of the prison, the attackers hacked the prison commander and guards to death and paraded around the streets with their heads on pikes

  • The fall of the Bastille became a great symbolic act of revolution to the French people

  • Ever since, July 14 or Bastille Day has become a French National holiday similar to the 4th of July

IV. A Great Fear Sweeps France

  • Rebellion started to spread to the countryside before long

  • Rumors that the nobles were hiring outlaws to terrorize peasants created a wave of senseless panic known as the Great Fear

  • Peasants soon became outlaws themselves

  • Armed with pitchforks and other farm tools, they broke into noble’s manors to destroy old legal papers that bound them to pay feudal dues

  • Peasants sometimes simply burned the manors down

  • October 1789, Parisian women rioted over the rising price of bread; brandishing weapons, they marched on Versailles

  • Demanded that National Assembly take action, then turned to the king and queen demanding that they return to Paris

  • The king, his family, and servants left Versailles, never again to see their magnificent palace

Revolution Brings Reform and Terror

  • Peasants were not the only members of French society to feel the Great Fear; nobles and officers of the Church were equally afraid

  • Bands of angry peasants struck out against members of the upper classes, attacking and destroying many manor houses

  • Before the women’s march on Versailles in 1789, some nobles and clergy in the National Assembly responded to the uprisings

V. The Assembly Reforms France

  • Throughout the night of August 4, 1789, noblemen gave speeches and declarations about their love of equality and liberty

  • Motivated by fear, not so much idealism

  • Joined other members of the National Assembly to sweep away feudal privileges of the First and Second Estates; the Old Regime was dead

  1. The Rights of Man

  • Three weeks later, the National Assembly adopted a statement of revolutionary ideals, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

  • Document stated that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

  • Rights included “liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”

  • The document also guaranteed citizens equal justice, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion

  • Revolutionary leaders adopted the expression “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” as their slogan

  • However did not apply to women

  • Olympe de Gouges published a declaration of the rights of women, she was rejected and later executed as being an enemy of the revolution

  1. A State Controlled Church

  • Many early reforms focused on the Church

  • The National Assembly took over Church lands and declared that Church officials and priests were to be elected and paid as state officials; Catholic Church lost its land and political independence

  • Move was largely economic; proceeds from the sale of Church land helped pay off France’s huge debt

  • This alarmed millions of French peasants, who were devout Catholics

  • The effort to make the Church part of the state offended them; believed that pope should rule over a church independent of the state.

  • From this time on, peasants opposed the assembly’s reforms

  1. Louis Tries to Escape

  • As the relationship between Church and state was restructured, Louis XVI pondered his fate as a monarch

  • Many advisers warned him that he and his family were in danger

  • The royal family, seeing France as unsafe, tried to flee the country to the Austrian Netherlands in June 1791

  • As they neared the border, they were apprehended and returned to Paris

  • His attempted escape increased the influence of his radical enemies in the government and sealed his fate

VI. Divisions Develop

  • For two years, the National Assembly argued over a new constitution for France

  • By 1791, the delegates had made significant changes in France’s government and society

  1. A Limited Monarchy

  • In September 1791, the National Assembly completed the new constitution, which Louis reluctantly approved

  • This constitution created a constitutional monarchy stripping the king of much of his authority

  • It created a new legislative body, the Legislative Assembly

  • This body had the power to create laws, and to approve or reject declarations of war; executive power to carry out laws still lied with the king

  1. Factions Split France

  • Despite the new government, old problems still remained such as food shortages and government debt

  • The question of how to handle these problems caused the Legislative Assembly to split into three groups, each of which sat in a different section of the meeting hall

  • Radicals, who sat on the left side of the hall, opposed the idea of a monarchy and wanted sweeping changes on the how the government was run

  • The Moderates, sat in the center of the hall, wanted changes but not as many as the Radicals

  • The Conservatives, sat on the right side of the hall, upheld the idea of a limited monarchy and wanted few changes to government

  • Factions outside of the Legislative Assembly wanted to influence the direction of government as well

  • Emigres, nobles and others who had fled France, hoped to undo the revolution and restore the Old Regime

  • In contrast, some Parisian workers wanted the Revolution to bring even greater changes to France; they were called sans-culottes or “those without knee-breeches

  • These people wore regular trousers, unlike the upper class

VII. War and Execution

  • Monarchs and nobles from other countries watched the changes taking place in France with alarm

  • Feared that similar revolts might break out in their own countries

  • Some radicals wanted to spread these revolutionary ideas throughout Europe

  • Some countries took action

  • Austria and Prussia, for example, urged the French to restore Louis to his position as absolute monarch

  • Legislative Assembly responded by declaring war in April 1792

  1. France at War

  • By summer of 1792, Prussian forces were advancing on Paris

  • The Prussian commander threatened to destroy Paris if the revolutionaries harmed any member of the royal family

  • Enraged by this, 20,000 Parisians on August 10, invaded the Tuileries (palace).

  • The mob massacred the royal guard and imprisoned Louis, Marie Antoinette, and their children

  • French troops that were defending Paris were sent to reinforce the French army in the field

  • Due to rumors spreading that imprisoned citizens were planning to break out and support the king, people began to take the law into their own hands

  • For several days in September, prisons were raided and 1,000 prisoners were murdered; royalist sympathizers were victims during these September Massacres

  • Under pressure from the Radicals, the Legislative Assembly set aside the Constitution of 1791

  • It declared the king deposed, dissolved the assembly, and called for the election of a new legislature

  • The National Convention took office on September 21

  • It quickly abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic; adult, male citizens were given the right to vote

  1. Jacobins Take Control

  • Most governmental changes that took place in September 1792 came from members of a radical political organization, the Jacobin Club

  • One prominent Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, edited a newspaper called L’Ami du Peuple (Friend of the People)

  • In many editorials, Marat called for the death of all those who continued to support the king

  • Georges Danton, a lawyer, was also known for his devotion to the rights of Paris’s poor people

  • The National Convention has reduced Louis XVI from that of king to that of a common citizen and prisoner

  • Now guided by the radical Jacobins, it tried Louis for treason.

  • Found guilty, the Convention sentenced him to death

  • On January 21, 1793, the former king was beheaded by the guillotine




  1. The War Continues

  • When the Convention took office, the French army won a stunning victory against the Austrians and the Prussians at the Battle of Valmy

  • When Great Britain, Holland, and Spain joined forces with Austria and Prussia, a draft was ordered by the National Convention; 300,000 French between the age of 18-40 were ordered to fight

  • In 1794, the army had grown to 800,000 and included women

VIII. The Terror Grips France

  • Besides foreign enemies, the Jacobins had thousands of enemies within France itself

  • These included peasants who were horrified by the king’s execution, priests who would not accept government control, and rival leaders who were stirring up rebellion in the provinces

  • How to contain these problems became a central issue

  1. Robespierre Assumes Control

  • In early 1793, one Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre, slowly gained power.

  • Robespierre and his supporters set out to build a “republic of virtue” by wiping out traces of France’s past

  • They changed the calendar, dividing the year into 12 months of 30 days and renaming each month; calendar had no Sundays—considered religion old fashioned and dangerous

  • Closed all churches in Paris; cities and towns in France eventually did the same

  • July 1793, Robespierre became leader of the Committee of Public Safety

  • Governed France virtually as a dictator

  • His period of rule was known as the Reign of Terror

  • The main task of the Committee was to protect the Revolution from its enemies

  • “Enemies” were often tried in the morning and guillotined in the afternoon

  • Robespierre justified his use of terror by suggesting that it enabled French citizens to remain true to the ideals of the Revolution

  • Enemies of the Revolution were often radicals who challenged Robespierre’s leadership

  • In 1793 and 1794, many of those who had led the Revolution received death sentences

  • Their only crime was that they were considered less radical than Robespierre.

  • By early 1794, Georges Danton found himself in danger

  • Danton’s own friends in the National Convention were afraid to defend him and actually joined in condemning him.

  • Told the executioner, “Don’t forget to show my head to the people, it’s well worth seeing.”

  • Besides Danton and Marie Antoinette, thousands of unknown people were sent to their deaths, often on the flimsiest of charges

  • An 18 year old boy was sentenced to death for chopping down a tree that had been planted as a symbol of liberty.

  • As many as 40,000 people were executed during “The Terror”

  • About 85% of those were peasants and urban workers for whom the Revolution was started

IX. End of the Terror

  • In July 1794, fearing for their own safety, members of the National Convention turned against Robespierre.

  • They demanded his arrest and execution

  • His Reign of Terror ended on July 28, 1794, when Robespierre was sent to the guillotine

  • French public opinion shifted greatly after Robespierre’s death.

  • People had grown weary of the Terror

  • Tired of skyrocketing prices for bread, salt and other necessities of life

  • In 1795, moderate leaders in the National Convention drafted a new plan of government; the third since 1789

  • Power was placed firmly in the hands of the upper class and called for a two-house legislature and an executive body of 5 men known as the directory

  • They were moderates, not revolutionary idealists; some were corrupt and became wealthy at the country’s expense

  • Did provide order to France; Napoleon Bonaparte chosen to command France’s army



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