The French Revolution

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The French Revolution

Enlightenment thought was one of the major inspirations behind the bloody revolution that consumed France in the late 1700s. By 1789, France was controlled by a regime that did not fairly represent most of the population. Swiftly, the people revolted and established a Republic in France. However, what was in name a Republic was really a radical government that looked to eliminate all opposition. After a Reign of Terror bled France, Napoleon Bonaparte took over the country and ruled as a military dictator. Napoleon’s thirst for an Empire eventually led to his downfall, as overexpansion and war losses led twice to his exile.

High Taxes placed on the Third Estate

The 3rd estate made up 97% of the people. Despite not having most of the wealth in France. They paid more than their fair share in taxes. They also had little say in government.

Social Classes Estate System

1. 1st Estate: Clergy

2. 2nd Estate: Nobility

3. 3rd Estate: Bourgeoisie and Poor

What were the main causes of the French Revolution?

Monarchy of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette was weak

The rule of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette was inefficient and did not meet the needs of the people.

American Revolution

The King spent a lot of money to help America defeat the British. All the while, people were starving in France. In addition, there was a belief that if the Americans could be successful in revolution that brought liberty, so too could the French.

Enlightenment Ideas

Enlightenment ideas of liberty and equality made citizens further resent the absolute monarchy in France.

Causes of the French Revolution

The 3rd Estate wanted to blow off some ….


Old Regime / Three Estates

The Old Regime was the historic class and political structure of France. From most powerful to least, it included

The 1st Estate: Clergy, who owned a great deal of land.

The 2nd Estate: Nobles, who also controlled a great amount of wealth.

The 3rd Estate: The Third Estate was divided into the bourgeoisie and the poor. The peasants made up most of this Estate


A branch of the Third Estate was the bourgeoisie. They were well-educated artisans and capitalists who familiarized themselves with Enlightenment thought. The bourgeoisie believed they were entitled a say in government because of their education and standing in society.

National Assembly, June 17th 1789

France was spending more money than it had. When Louis XVI asked the Estates General (representatives from the three Estates) for more tax revenue, the Third Estate became enrage for multiple reasons. Though comprised of 97% of the people, they had the same amount pf representatives as the other two Estates. To make matters worse, each Estate only had one vote. This meant that the First and Second Estates could always outvote the Third Estate. Enraged by the structure, and inspired by Enlightenment ideas, the Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly of France that could pass laws for the people.

Tennis Court Oath, June 20, 1789

Locked out of an Estates General meeting, National Assembly (Third Estate) members broke into an indoor tennis court. There, they took an oath to make a new constitution for France.

Storming of the Bastille, July 14, 1789

A symbol of absolutism in France, the Bastille was a prison that housed political criminals. Although King Louis XVI began to listen to the demands of the people, he also called in neutral (Swiss) troops to protect France from mob rule. Nonetheless a crowd overtook the Bastille. This event triggered the first bloodshed of the Revolution, which today is celebrated in France as Bastille Day.

In the aftermath of the Bastille there were riots and mob chaos. Fueled by rumors that both the King and the first two Estates were going to imprison or kill peasants, hysteria unfolded known as the Great Fear. Peasants armed themselves with whatever they could and paraded through the streets. Many looted the homes of nobles.

Major Events of the French Revolution:

1. Women in Paris took to the streets to protest the inflation of bread prices. They broke into the palace of Versailles (just outside of Paris), and demanded that the King and Queen rule from Paris. In 1791, the royal family attempted to escape to Austria, but was recognized near the French border and captured.

2. The National Assembly finished the constitution (as pledged on the tennis court oath). After Louis’ blessing, lawmaking power was given to a new Legislative Assembly.

3. Austria, which was loyal to Louis, demanded that he be restored to power. The Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria in 1792, and lost many early battles. Austria never did conquer Paris though, and the Legislative Assembly, and later a newly elected National Convention, maintained power.

4. In 1793, a powerless Louis was put on trial and found guilty of treason. He was executed via the guillotine (device used to chop off heads.) The Queen was executed months late.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, 1789:

This was a document, similar to the American Declaration of Independence, that declared all men to be created equal. It promised to protect the natural rights of individuals. The words had far reaching implications, as they would inspire revolution as far away as Latin America. In France, the demands for liberty, equality, and fraternity could be heard throughout the countryside.

However, women were not included. Olympe de Gouges spike out for female equality. She was unsuccessful in her campaign, and was executed during the Reign Terror.

Political Spectrums of the National Assembly: Conservatives, Moderates, and Radicals

Conservatives (who sat on the right): they were fine with having a limited monarch. Many of them were aristocratic emigres, royal supporters who emigrated from France during the violence.

Moderates (who sat in the middle): They were still undecided on the role of the monarchy in France.

Political Spectrum: explanation of ideologies in politics.

Those who favor more reform for individual liberties are called liberals. Those who want little or no reform are conservatives. The moderates can learn either way. Revolutionaries are radials who want much more change than legally possible, Reactionaries wish to “turn back the clock on society. In the case of the French Revolution, reactionaries would be those looking to restore the absolute monarchy.


The Jacobins were a revolutionary political club that wanted to eliminate all aspects of monarchy and make France a Republic. The Jacobins turned to violence to achieve their goals. Their leaders were Jean-Paul Marat, Georges Danton, and Maximilien Robespierre.

Maximilien Robespierre and the Reign of Terror:

Robespierre seized power. He wanted to rid France of people who supported nobility and the monarchy. To do this, he established the Committee of Public of Safety to sniff out enemies of the Republic. Between 1793 and 1794, thousands of so-called traitors were executed in what would be known as the Reign of Terror. Even Danton. A once loyal Jacobin, was executed. Marat was stabbed to death in a bathtub by a female political opponent named Charlotte Corday.

The Directory:

Robespierre’s killing-spree was too much to endure for the French people. Robespierre was guillotined in 1794. In the aftermath of the terror, a moderate five-member executive branch known as the Directory took over alongside a two-house legislature. The Directory appointed Napoleon Bonaparte to lead France’s army.

Coup d’eat, 1799:

Napoleon Bonaparte’s popularity as a General was growing. When the French Directory was internally falling apart, Napoleon pounced on the government. He suddenly seized power in 1799. Such a “blow of state” is called a coup d’eat.

Napoleonic Code:

Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in 1804. He placed the crown on his own head rather than have the Pope do it for him. To legislate for the Empire, a legal code was named for him. Although the code gave equal rights to all men under the law, it limited freedom of speech. Furthermore, women’s rights were decreased and male dominance was proclaimed.

Invasion of Russia, 1812:

He invaded his former ally, Russia. When Napoleon got deep enough into the country, Czar Alexander I ordered the land to be burned (called scorched earth policy). This destruction of agriculture left Napoleon’s army to starve through harsh Russian winter. He lost amongst his entire force of half a million soldiers during the campaign.

Elba and Hundred Days:

After his defeat in Russia, Napoleon was banished to the island of Elba near Italy. Not guarded too tightly, he escaped in 1815 and marched through France’s countryside to gather supporters. He attempted to regain his empire for about one hundred days. This attempt ended on June 18, 1815 when lost the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was banished to the island of Saint Helena in the Atlantic. There, he died in 1821.

Congress of Vienna:

This was a meeting in Austria from 1814-1815. Led by Austrian prince Klemens von Metternich, diplomats embraced ideas such as establishing a balance of power in Europe and restoring the legitimacy of the monarchs dethroned by Napoleon.

Fearful of revolutions similar to the one seen in France, coalitions such as the Holy Alliance and Metternich’s Concert of Europe were formed. It was agreed that if an uprising broke out in one country, the members of the alliance would put it down. These alliances did not prevent the wars to come in the nineteenth century.

How did South American countries get their independence from European Nations?

Inspired by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, Latin America aw revolutions c1820 led by:

  1. Simon Bolivar: Known as the Liberator, he helped bring self-rule to much of South America including Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela.

  2. Jose San Martin: He fought alongside Bolivar, and helped free Chia, Peru, and Argentina

  3. Toussaint L’Ouverture: As mentioned above, in 1801 he led an uprising of slaves in Haiti that eventually led to its independence from France in1804.

  4. Mexico also declared independence in 1821. With the help of Miguel Hidalgo and Jose Morelos, Mexico received independence from Spain after bloody conflict. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Mexican politician Benito Juarez presented liberal reforms in a movement called La Reforma. He advocated for separation of church and state, and increased education for the poor.

  5. In contrast, Brazil received its independence from Portugal in 1822 through mostly peaceful measures. However, Portugal did not recognize their independence until 1825.

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