34 Off With Their Heads 1789 THE FRENCH Revolution was the world's first social revolution, forging not only a new government but a new society. Ordinary Frenchmen had long chafed under high-living, heavy-handed kings. Philosophes--Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu--called for a social order based on law and reason rather than royal privilege. The revolt began in 1789 when middle-class delegates broke from a legislature rigged to favor the nobility and clergy, forming their own National Assembly. Then thousands stormed Paris's Bastille prison. In the ensuing civil war, the guillotine claimed 17,000 heads--including those of Louis XVI; his queen, Marie Antoinette; and countless revolutionaries whose factions lost out in power struggles.
In 1814 the monarchy was temporarily restored. But the Revolution's legacy endured. Peasants and women gained equality before the law. The nobility lost power. The ideas of socialism and nationalism were among the insurrection's exports, as were its egalitarian legal system and its Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Even its tricolor flag became a model--hoisted, in various hues, by new republics throughout the world.