From 1600 to 1900, France was the most populous and powerful nation in Europe. For half of that time, it had a tradition of absolute monarchy – kings with total power over the French government and society. Louis XIV (14) was the ultimate example of these absolute monarchs.
The nobles and people of France referred to Louis as the "Sun King" because he dazzled all in Europe and was the center of his government (and because Louis wanted to be known in this way…and Louis always got what he wanted).
Louis XIV of France
hat Was the Palace of Versailles?
As a symbol of his power, Louis XIV built Versailles, the most incredible royal residence in Europe. The king very rarely left this palace even to go into Paris which was about 15 miles away. He spent much of his life making the buildings, the gardens and the fountains more fantastic than anything else in all of the known world in the 1600’s. Versailles represented the magnificence of the Sun King…and of France.
Louis forced the nobles of France to move to his palace for long periods of time so he could keep an eye on them. A rebellion by the nobles when Louis was just a boy had taught him the lesson of controlling his powerful rivals. At Versailles, these nobles were surrounded by art which featured images of Louis and building projects that he alone designed. They were constantly reminded of who was in charge. The beautiful palace became a type of royal prison for them.
What Did French Society Look Like During Louis XIV’s Time?
At the time of Louis XIV's rule in the late 1600’s, French society was divided into three classes called "estates." It had been this way for centuries. In fact, this system was called "L' Regime Ancien" (the Old Regime…the old way of doing things).
The First Estate was made up of the leaders of the Catholic Church in France (the clergy). The church owned large areas of land. Though the clergy were taxed by the king, the amount the First Estate had to pay was quite small.
A political cartoon showing the three estates.
he Second Estate was made up of the nobles who had inherited their wealth. One privilege of being a noble was that they did not have to pay any tax. However, nobles had less freedom than the clergy. If they wanted to keep their lands, they had to agree to live at Versailles for as long as King Louis wanted them there. This group, like the clergy, controlled quite a bit of the land and money even though it only a small percentage of France’s population.
Who Made Up the Third Estate?
The largest of the three estates was the Third Estate, made up of middle class city dwellers (the bourgeoisie), urban workers and the urban poor (“urban” is a word that means “city”), and peasant farmers. The bourgeoisie were well-educated lawyers, doctors, manufacturers, bankers, merchants and shop keepers. Some were as rich as the nobles, but the law under the Old Regime treated them like peasants.
A painting of a “sans-culotte” carrying an early version of the French national flag, the “Tricolour.”
utchers, bakers, tanners, weavers and other skilled tradesmen made up the working poor. These people came to be known as the “sans-culottes” because they wore work pants, not the knee-length culottes of the nobility. (“Sans” in French means “without,” so “sans-culottes” means “without fancy pants.”) These people depended heavily on the supply of bread, and when harvests were bad and the price of bread rose, so did the anger of the sans-culottes.
Peasant farmers made up the largest portion of the Third Estate. They paid taxes to the nobles and the king and even more taxes to the church. They also had to give up a certain number of days to repair government roads.
All three parts of the third estate had reasons for hating the Old Regime. The sans-culotte got angry about bread prices. The bourgeoisie felt disrespected by the members of the first and second estates. The peasant farmers paid more in taxes than anyone else.
What Problems Faced France in the late 1780’s?
Louis XIV's great-great-great grandson, Louis XVI (16), wasn't the same commanding, visionary leader that Louis XIV had been a hundred years before. Though Louis XVI was smart, he was also indecisive. Indecisiveness is a weakness in the world of politics. However, Louis’ leadership style was not his only problem.
Louis XVI of France
rance in the 1700s was deeply in debt, partly because previous kings (including Louis XIV) had waged war both in Europe and in the New World. Waging war is very costly. Most recently, Louis XVI had agreed to help America in its fight for independence from France's old enemy, the British. In order to help the United States, France drained its own treasury to dangerously low levels. And because the U.S. government had no way to collect taxes to repay loans, France could not expect to get its money back any time soon.
Another problem for Louis XVI was his wife. He had married a young Austrian princess named Marie Antoinette. Austria had been bitter enemies of France for many years. The royal families of Austria and France arranged the marriage between Louis and Marie Antoinette as a way of building strong, peaceful ties between the two countries. However, the queen’s Austrian background and her habit of spending money on all sorts of luxuries made her very unpopular with ordinary French people. She seemed more interested in parties, fancy clothes, and card games than the country's financial problems or the poor people starving in the streets of Paris.
Nature did not cooperate either. In the late 1780’s France experienced a series of heavy late summer storms followed by very harsh winters. This led to record low wheat harvests. Less wheat meant increases in the price of bread, the single most important part of the French diet. The average French adult ate two to three pounds of bread per day. Shortages of bread eventually led rioting.
Not only that, but the bourgeoisie were a source of concern. This well educated part of the Third Estate was reading some very dangerous books written by philosophers like Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Locke. The bourgeoisie had been filling their heads with new ideas about natural rights, equality, freedoms of speech and religion... Enlightenment ideas. These Enlightenment ideas were not popular with members of the other two estates or the king, but the middle class loved them. In fact, the bourgeoisie had noticed the success of the American Revolution, a victory made possible by their own king. French middle class people began to think, “If the Americans could get greater respect and more freedoms from their king, perhaps the people of France could too.”
What Was the Estates General?
Louis XVI hid away at Versailles avoiding his country’s problems until they couldn’t be avoided any longer. By the spring of 1789, France was almost bankrupt. Louis tried to tax the nobles. The nobles rejected the idea unless the king called a meeting of the three estates (an "Estates General"). This rarely used tradition was reserved for very important decisions. The king called the Estates General to resolve the debt issue, and representatives of the three estates came to Versailles in May, 1789.
When making decisions during an Estates General, the tradition was to give each estate one vote. So, the first two estates could always out-vote the Third Estate. Third Estate representatives (all of whom are members of the bourgeoisie) pushed for one vote per representative, a fairer and more enlightened way of decision-making. The King rejected the idea and insisted that the tradition of one vote per estate be used.
In frustration, the Third Estate decided to declare itself the "National Assembly" with the power to make laws for all of the people. It invited the other estates to join the new National Assembly as equals. The representatives proposed to make a constitution (or plan for government) with or without the other estates. This decision is the first act of rebellion and the first step toward tearing down the Old Regime.
In response to the Third Estate’s boldness, the king locked them out of their meeting room. The Third Estate representatives met in an enclosed tennis court instead. There they swore that they would keep meeting until they had created a new constitution for France. This promise has come to be known as the "Tennis Court Oath."
What Was the Bastille and Why did French Citizens Attack It?
King Louis was alarmed by the boldness of the Third Estate. He wanted to keep order and remind the Third Estate who was in charge. He called for his mercenaries, the Swiss army, to move into Paris to regain control of the streets and to guard the palace at Versailles. The citizens of Paris noticed the movement of troops and feared that the new National Assembly was about to be disbanded or imprisoned. They rallied to form a citizen militia (citizen army) to protect the National Assembly and gathered as many weapons as possible.
However, the citizens did not have gun powder. They knew that the king stored a large supply of it in a prison in central Paris call the Bastille. For hundreds of years this prison had been the place where the kings of France had locked away their enemies. Wanting gun powder and wanting to smash this symbol of the king’s tyranny, the citizen militia attacked and broke into the Bastille on July 14, 1789. By the end of the day, the Bastille guards were dead and the lifeless body of the prison warden was dragged through the streets of Paris.
In time, the violent overthrow of the Bastille came to represent the successful challenge to the king and overturning of the Old Regime. To this date, France marks July 14 (called “Bastille Day”) as its national day of independence. Shortly after the Bastille was stormed, the National Assembly adopted a new three color flag for the nation (the same one used by France today). Citizens of Paris spent the next few months tearing down the Bastille by hand.
What Was the Great Fear?
In the weeks after the storming of the Bastille, fear and rumor spread through the countryside of France. Peasants began to believe that the nobles who taxed them were hiring foreign troops to attack them. These peasant farmers were tired of the oppression by the nobles. They became oppressors themselves and attacked the nobles and their property. They destroyed the legal papers which bound them to the nobles. They hoped to end the tradition of paying feudal dues to the nobles. Large numbers of these nobles began fleeing to other countries. It was war between the classes. A Great Fear gripped all of France.
What Was the Declaration of Rights of Man and the Citizen?
Back at Versailles, the National Assembly continued working toward the promise of a new constitution. In August it approved the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. This document was shaped by Enlightenment ideas and the American Declaration of Independence. It declared that all French citizens would be free to speak as they wish, to worship freely and to read and write whatever they liked. It stated that all citizens were born with natural rights: they were free and equal and had the right to own property and to protect themselves. They also had the right to fight against government tyranny. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity would be the promises of the Revolution.
Though the document never once mentioned the king, the government it helped to create was a constitutional monarchy which shared power between the king and a group of law makers. Over the next few years, the lawmakers met and steadily chipped away at the power of Louis XVI.
What Was the Women’s March?
In October of 1789, a rumor spread through Paris about a party thrown at Versailles. According to the story, guests at the party were encouraged to trample on the France’s new national flag. Angered by this story and by shortages of bread, a crowd of about 7,000 working women from Paris marched 15 miles to Versailles. Why, these women argued, should the king and queen live in such luxury at Versailles while their citizens suffer such hardships? At first the women demanded to meet with the king, but eventually they demanded that the king and queen move to Paris to be closer to the problems of their people. The women broke into the palace, killing several guards and raiding the king's supply of grain. In the end, they forced the king and his family to move to Paris. It was the last time that a king of France ever lived at Versailles.
Why and How Did the Revolution Split?
One decision made by the National Assembly was to take control of the Catholic Church. Members of the Assembly felt Church leaders were guilty of participating in the corruption of Old Regime. Under the new rules, church officials would be chosen by local election (not chosen by the Pope in Rome). Some church lands would be sold to raise money to pay off debts. Peasant farmers in the countryside became very upset by these changes. They tended to be the most religious members of French society and thought it was wrong to treat the Catholic Church in this way. As a result, the Revolution never again had the wide support of French peasant farmers. Tensions between Catholic peasants and the Revolutionary government would result in several years of religious persecution and thousands of deaths.
Some members of the National Assembly agreed with the peasants. They were concerned about the Revolution going too far too quickly. They were eager to return France to a time when the king again had more power. These lawmakers were called “Conservatives” and usually sat together on the right of the assembly room. Other members of the Legislative Assembly believed that the Revolution was not moving fast enough. These leaders, called “Radicals,” wanted to completely abolish the monarchy and erase all evidence of the Old Regime. They usually sat together on the left side of the assembly room. In the middle sat the “Moderates” who believed that some sort of constitutional monarchy was best. To this day in politics, people use these “left, right, and center” references to describe what political leaders believe about how best to govern any country.
Why Did the King Attempt to Escape?
Concerned for his family’s safety and determined to regain control of France with the help of foreign troops, the King and his family tried to sneak out of France disguised as servants in June of 1791. They nearly made it to Austria where the queen’s family lived, but Louis was recognized by someone who had seen his portrait on French money. The king and his family are publically returned to Paris and the king’s reputation was forever damaged. Louis, who had sworn to support the Revolution, was instead trying abandon or (even worse) overthrow it.
Why Did France Go to War With Austria?
The royal families of Austria and other European monarchies expressed their concern for the safety of Louis XVI and his family. These monarchs were related to Louis and Marie Antoinette. They were also worried about revolutionary ideas spreading to their own populations. They warned Revolutionary leaders in France not to harm the royal family, but instead to return them to power. If Revolutionary leaders refused, France would be invaded.
Leaders in National Assembly feared that Austria and other European powers would attack France and restore Louis as the absolute monarch. They also hoped to spread the Liberty, Equality and Fraternity of Revolution throughout Europe. As a result, the National Assembly declared war on Austria in April of 1792. The early battles did not go well for France because it was disorganized and because Prussia, a large German kingdom, joined the conflict on the side of Austria. Austrians armies invaded France and came very close to Paris.
What were the September Massacres?
While the war went poorly, rumors spread throughout Paris that Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were somehow spying for the Austrians. A mob provoked by a radical political club called the Jacobins attacked the royal palace in Paris and imprisoned the royal family. Members of this radical group of Jacobins took over the National Assembly and voted to abolish the monarchy and create the Republic of France.
The same mobs that attacked the royal palace were whipped up by new rumors. As Austrian forces neared the city, many people in Paris worried that these armies would take over Paris and free imprisoned nobles and clergy members, reestablishing the Old Regime. Another rumor spread that there were not enough French soldiers left in the city to control the prisons. Finally, in September of 1792, the fear of what could happen became too great and mobs attacked the prisons. Priests, nobles, and other enemies of the Revolution were massacred in their cells. In one night of bloodshed, 1400 prisoners were slaughtered.
Who Was Maximilian Robespierre?
Once the radical Jacobin members of the National Assembly had taken control of the government of France, their first decisive act was to put King Louis on trial for treason. Maximilian Robespierre and other leaders of the radicals did not want to take any chance that King Louis could be rescued and returned to the throne. The trial was conducted publically with the members of the National Assembly (now called the Legislative Assembly) serving as the judges and jury. Numerous charges were brought against “Citizen Louis Capet” (as the king was now called) who defended himself forcefully against each. When the vote to convict was taken, a narrow margin voted to convict Louis and execute him using a new device called “the guillotine.”
Designed by Dr. Joseph-Ignace Gullotine, the device was intended to give the condemned a quick, merciful death. Instead, the guillotine became a symbol of terror, an engine of death that would be used in as many as 40,000 executions. One of its early victims was Louis XVI, former absolute monarch of France, who was executed on January 21st, 1793. Leaders of other European monarchies were horrified at the news and joined in the war against France.
Why Was France So Successful in Its Wars Against the Rest of Europe?
Even though France had many problems and was going through a revolution, it was still a wealthy country with one of the largest populations in Europe. Faced with the challenge of a coalition of nations, France's new Republican government raised armies of volunteers and conscripts (soldiers who were drafted). The French forces swelled to over 800,000 men. The French army scored victory after victory over their mercenary opponents because so many of French soldiers were more devoted to the Revolutionary cause. Some of the French army’s most striking victories were directed by a new general named Napoleon Bonaparte.
What was the Reign of Terror?
Back in France Robespierre and the radicals set out to build a "Republic of Virtue" by wiping out all traces of the monarchy and nobility. Even the calendar was changed to erase any connection to the Old Regime. As Robespierre explained it, France would be purified through terror. All enemies of the Revolution would eventually be wiped out. During this “Reign of Terror” anyone could come under suspicion for even the slightest act. A kind word about the dead king, a disagreement with a neighbor, looking or acting like a noble… all of these could result in an accusation, arrest and conviction. Robespierre and the radicals were committed to swift justice. Victims of the Terror were often tried in the morning and executed that same afternoon.
Many of the victims of the guillotine during the Reign of Terror were not nobles or enemies of the Revolution. Most were peasants… people that the Revolution initially set out to help. Robespierre used the Terror to eliminate anyone who challenged his power, having them tried and convicted as enemies of the Revolution. He ruled over France as a dictator from 1793 to 1794. In the end, the Revolution devoured its most radical leaders as one after another were accused and executed as enemies of the Revolution. Fearing that it was only a matter of time before Robespierre turned on them, moderate members of the Legislative Assembly turned on Robespierre, trying and convicted him. The Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre being guillotined on July 28th, 1794.
How did the Revolution End?
Sick of the Terror and seeking stability, leaders of the Third Estate turned their backs on the radicals. Moderates took charge of a new government and found a "supremely talented" young general to lead their war against Austria: Napoleon Bonaparte. In time, Napoleon would lead the country, too…first as an appointed director, and eventually as a self-crowned emperor.
A lack of leadership, debt, food shortages, and series of other problems led citizens to challenge an unfair social structure. Centuries of anger boiled over into an open conflict between the three social classes. Sweeping reforms gave way to despotism (tyranny) of mob rule and then to the despotism of Robespierre. The dream of a free, equal brotherhood died in the Terror. In the end, French citizens were willing to give up some of their new-found freedoms in exchange for peace and security.