Revolutions: What is a revolution?

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Past Essay Questions: Remember to check previous area’s questions

‘External threats strongly influenced revolutionary governments.’ How valid is this statement (3&4)
‘Foreign intervention forced revolutionaries to become more extreme.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?

(Area 3 or 4 or both)

‘Fear of counter-revolution pushed the revolutionaries in more extreme directions.’ To what extent do you agree with this statement?

(Area 3 & 4)

Appendix One A: The Estates of pre-revolutionary France.

First Estate : The Clergy

  • Numbered some 130 000

  • Ranked from Archbishops to humble priests. Impossible to rise through the ranks

  • Church hierarchy were fabulously wealthy.

  • Wealth of Church came from land owned (10%, largest landowning group) and from tithes.

  • Tithes: a tax of 8-10% of peasants income or value of crops and stock. Supposed to support lower clergy but mostly went to bishops and abbots.

  • Church completely exempt from royal taxes. Gave small donation to King instead.

  • Responsible for hospitals and schools, poor relief, registrar of birth, deaths and marriages. Wide censorship powers.

Second Estate: The Nobility.

  • 300 000 to 400 000.

  • Owned 40% of land and control of public office

  • Paid some taxes but had numerous exemptions

  • Dominated highest administrative posts

  • 4000 court nobility were most powerful. Nobility of the Sword.

  • Next were Nobility of the Robe – legal and administrative nobles esp. 1200 of who were magistrates of the parlements.

  • Rest lived in country estates

  • Oldest son inherited estates. Other sons who were granted noble status joined clergy, army or administrative posts.

  • Had tax exemptions see Waller p.8, Rees, p.9, tried in special courts, exempt for forced labour.

Third Estate:

  • Everyone else who was not in the other two estates: 26-28 million people

  • Enormous fluctuations of wealth in this estate.

  • 80-90% of population were peasants

22 million lived in countryside, 6 million in urban areas of which there were several working classes

  • At top end were rich merchants, industrialists and business people. Known as the bourgeoisie (the whole group) or bourgeois (individual). Ports were main sites of merchant bourgeoisie activity

  • Other bourgeoisie included financiers, landowners, doctors, writers, lawyers, civil servants, teachers, master craftsmen. All in all numbered about 2.3 million.

  • They sought noble status themselves and until 1788 supported status quo. Successful bourgeoisie could purchase venal public office. In time noble status may be granted by the king. By 1780 there was abiding frenzy for these positions.

The Peasants: formed largest group of Third Estate. Approx 28 million by 1790.

  • Many peasants owned some land, 9probably 45% of land in France owned by peasants) and a small group (600 000, Rees, p.12) pf large scale farmers who employed other labourers. Bottom end of peasants were the labourers.

  • Half peasants were share croppers, no capital, gave half produce to landlords

  • 25% of peasants were landless labourers

  • 1 million serfs, subject to dues paid to their Lord.

  • Poor peasantry had no hope of improvement – a stone’s throw from destitution.

The Urban workers made up third section of Third Estate. Many were skilled artisans and owned workshops (see Adcock, p.18).

  • Sans-culottes. Small property owners and artisans in Paris. Educated and militant.

  • Majority of workers in towns lived poorly in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions.

  • Skilled workers organised guilds. Not allowed to obtain higher wages or better conditions. In Paris in 1776 there were 100 000 members.

  • No large-scale production. Pre industrial revolution factory system.


Appendix One B: Sources of Discontent in Pre-revolutionary France
Marxist interpretation: that has been one of the main vehicles for analysing FR has been largely discredited. Not a clash of one class against another.
Was there any one class or Group identifiable as responsible for the French Revolution?

It was not a case of the First and Second Estate united together on the side of the King. Similarly they were not so set apart from rest of society by their privileged positions.

Sources of discontent amongst Second Estate.

  1. The Frondes : Group of traditional Nobles who had rebelled against king causing civil war in 17th century. Excluded from political office, harboured deep grudge against the monarchy.

  1. Nobility of the Robe: ran bureaucracy and parlements . Had been frustrated by Louis XV1’s grandfather. Openly critical of monarchy and there as a decided lack of respect for Monarchy. In 1774 Louis XV1, in an attempt to win back the favour of the parlements, gave them back the powers previously stripped from them.

  1. Nobility not simply divided in to the Order of the Sword and the Order of the Robe. Many were industrialists who invested heavily in coal and textiles.. They had little in common with those at Court or in Administration or those who frequented the salons on Paris There were many impoverished Nobility in the country who struggled to make a living from their estates.

The First Estate

There was a great discrepancy also amongst the clergy. Nobility who had become clergy and those Archbishops and Bishops were unspeakably wealthy. Many lower clergy were impoverished and identified with peasants, workers and artisans.
Sources of Discontent amongst Third Estate.

The Bourgeoisie

Through mos of 18th Century wealth of bourgeoisie had grown. Not so their social mobility. Purchase of hereditary office, either army or state had been blocked. Army Law of 1781 and number of offices for sale in the parlements had declined. 1774-8 fewer than 20% of new 680 magistrates were non noble.

The more numerous, wealthy and educated the bourgeoisie became the scarcer the positions of privilege there were available. (Marxist theory has this class responsible for the outbreak of revolution Waller p.151.) Many powerful leaders of the revolution came from the nobility. Similar many nobles were engaged in bourgeoisie activity merchants and industry.
However, by 1789 there circumstances had not really changed. There were still positions to be had and money to be made. They made no attempt to demand social equality until after the parlements and the Nobility kick start the revolution. Waller p.151


French population had risen steadily throughout 18th century and much of the strain of this increase fell on the peasants.

Land prices went up and wages down. Significant increases in rent charged by landlords.
Burdened with Fedal dues and rent to landlords and Nobles, forced labour the corvée royale and the tithe to the Clergy, which amounted to a 10th of a person’s income. Originally paid for in produce.
However there were many rich peasants with large well-run and profitable farms. They were as a group, not as impoverished as other European peasant societies. Also the mass migration of peasants in to the cities looking for work in industry had not taken place as in England.
Bread was a key food and economic factor. Bumper crops and surpluses were stored on the large estates and key town depositories. Crop failure and shortages had severe effect on peasantry.
75% of peasants had some land. Half of these were sharecroppers i.e. gave half of crop to landlords instead of rent. Supplemented work with domestic work such as weaving. Remaining 25% had no land and were dependent on their lord for work. In bad times many were forced in to vagrancy and begging.
Series of bad harvests. 1730 48% food price increased to 65% by 1789. Wages only peaked at a 26% increase. Demand also effected supplementary incomes Wine and weaving fluctuations in 1770s and 1780s. Taxes rose steadily.
1788 recession in agricultural industry. Year France enters American War of Independence.

1787-88 catastrophic harvests. Wheat prices doubled. Inflation. Domestic industry collapsed as demand fell. Many lost their land and joined the ranks of the vagrant and the landless some drifting to the cities for work.

Urban workers

1786 free trade agreement with England. Hit the French textile industry. Less jobs for more workers.

In Paris the floating population of casual labourers, immigrants, criminals, vagrants and vagabonds grew to 50 000.

1788 the price of bread had risen to 80% of income. In 1789 there were economically motivated riots in Paris and around France.

However: urban workers, peasants, artisans and to lesser extent manufacturers brought together with a common bond of hostility towards government, landlords, merchants etc. These links were not clearly visible in 1788 and only gradually so in 1789. The peasants played no part in the events that started the revolution and the workers only after calling of the Estates-General and the forming of the National Assembly
Loss of confidence in the ancien régime. Many important, liberal nobles – people of the system, were opposed to the regime
Tensions within the nobility- ill feeling between the court nobles and the provincial nobles.
Liberal nobles spent time in the salons of Paris. A form of upper-class sociability, the Clubs, The Breton Club , half the Nobles who belonged were from nobility of the Robe and there were 23 Nobility of the robe.
Noble Society was itself a place of real power, above and beyond the structures of Royal Government

Appendix Two B: The Four Stages of the French Revolution 1788-89

  1. The Revolt of the Nobles 1788 (Assembly of Notables, Calling of the Estates-General)

  2. Revolt of the Bourgeoisie – June 1789 (Tennis Court Oath)

  3. The Revolt of the Parisian Crowd (Storming of the Bastille, revolution in Paris) July 1789

  4. The Revolt of the Peasants (The Great Fear 20 July-Aug 6, 1789)

Wars and Financial difficulties (Adcock pp 40-41)
Prelude to Stage 1.
Turgot, Controller General (1774-May 1776).

  • Warned of impending disaster.

  • Against French involvement in American War of independence

  • Attempted tax reform which Paris parlement rejected.

  • Dismisses 1776

Necker, Controller General (Oct 1776-May, 1781)

  • Did not attempt tax reform

  • Undertook borrowing to finance war in America

  • Juggled the books

  • Coincided with poor harvests

  • Urban unemployment

  • Inflation

Calone, C-G Nov 1783-1787

  • Inherited unsolvable economic situation

  • Louis and Ministers resisted change

  • Forced to secure more loans

  • Proposed a new land tax with no exemptions

  • Unwilling to present tax reforms to parlements

  • Persuaded Louis to call an Assembly of Notables to discuss the proposals

  • Notables resist Calone who is dismissed

Brienne C-G

  • Again faced losing battle with the Notables

  • Notables declared that King could no longer impose new taxes without the approval of representatives of the nation eg The Estates-General

  • Brienne had to introduce reform. He was now forced to go back to the parlements who again refused to cooperate.


  • Crowds begin to gather outside the Paris parlement

  • The Royal Session 17 Nov 1787. With Brienne on the verge of success of convincing the ministers of the merits of his reforms, Louis, with typical heavy-handedness orders the parlements to register the new tax laws. Parlements response?

Louis XV1

  • Cracks down on opponents

  • Arrests and exiles

  • Paris and provincial parlements bombard Louis with remonstrances, denouncing him as a despot and refuse to register any further laws

  • Furious callings for an Estates –General

May 8, 1788 Paris parlement issued its ‘fundamental laws of the kingdom

  • Right to vote taxes belonged to Estates General

  • Frenchmen could not be imprisoned without trial

  • King could not change rights and privileges in provinces

Louis’ Response

  • Deprived parlements of right to register and protest against royal decrees. This would be carried out by new Plenary Court comprising nobles appointed by him

  • parlements would be closed.

Stage One: The Revolt of the Nobles

  • day of tiles

  • violent uprising across France

  • leadership provided by members of First and Second Estates

  • many parlements reconvened despite Royal Orders

August 1788. France slide into bankruptcy : Spending completely outstripping earnings. Brienne given no choice but to call an Estates-General

Stage 2: The Revolt of the Bourgeoisie – June 1789

August 1788 – Bankruptcy, economic collapse and the reinstatement of Necker. Calling of Estates-General

The 10 months that elapsed between the calling of the Estates-General and its convening.

  • Compilation of the Book of Grievances

  • Disastrous crop failures in 1788 had led to bread shortages and food price rises.

  • By 1789 88% of Parisian workers wages spent on food.

  • Grain convoys attacked and food riots all over France.

  • Flashpoint: The Reveillion Riots April 1789. (Adcock, p.55)

Tension between the Estates over voting and representation.

  • Upper Estates very wary of Third Estate

  • Push for a new model of representation based on voting per head rather than one vote per Estate. Paris parlement chose to support in favour of the old system. Consequences?

How would this decision be interpreted by the Third Estate?

An outraged Third Estate demanded a doubling of the vote.
December 1789 King makes a poor decision that highlights his indecision and uncertainty. Decides to double the number of Third Estates’ representatives without making any judgement about voting.
January 1789: What is the Third Estate? Abbé Sieyès

May 4 1789 Estates-General convenes

  • 561 deputies for 1st and 2nd Estates

  • 578 deputies for 3rd Estate. (400 lawyers, 100 bankers, merchants, industrialists and some nobles and clergy.

  • Expectations are high especially on the King.

Time is wasted as King remains aloof and there is much bickering about voting.

  • No agenda of reform

  • Estates made to meet separately

  • Royal advisers and Marie Antoinette add to Louis’ inability to act decisively.

June 17 1789. Third Estate, out of patience, and declares itself the National Assembly of France calling other Estates to join them.

  • Represents the majority of France

  • Has the right to manage the country and decide taxation.

June 19 1789. Clergy voted to join them. A direct challenge to the King. Often celebrated as the beginning of the revolution.
King now forced to act. Persuaded by Necker he, called a Royal Session of all Estates for June 23 where he would announce new reforms.
The Tennis Court Oath

June 20 1789. Third Estate arrive at their assembly hall to find it locked. They March off in defiance to a local tennis court where the famous ‘Tennis Court Oath’ is declared.

  • Not to disperse until they give France a constitution

  • King has no right to disperse them.

June 23rd 1789. Louis’ reaction at the Royal Session

  • Ignored Necker who urged reform

  • Surrounded the meeting hall with armed soldiers

  • Regarded the Tennis Court Oath as a personal attack

  • He did agree to a raft of tax reforms

  • Social structure of ancien régime to remain the same

  • Declared all decrees issued by the National Assembly (The Third Estate and allies) as null in void.

  • Declared Estates-General should continue to meet separately and ordered deputies to disperse to their different meeting areas.

June 24 1789. Escalation of Events

  • 151 clergy join National Assembly (3rd Estate and allies)

  • day after, 157 Nobles join

  • Popular demonstration in Paris supporting National Assembly

Rumours abounded that Louis was going to use force to dissolve National Assembly

  • Since June 22nd Louis had been calling troops into the city including 2300 Germans. By 1st July some 20 000 troops were in Paris

June 27th. Louis backed down. All nobles and clergy were ordered to join 3rd Estate and to vote by head.

By July 4 there were 40 000 (Waller, p.26. Rees says 30 000 by July 11) troops in Paris and rumours spread that Louis was about to use force to disperse assembly by force.
In this atmosphere the Assembly was saved by the Revolt of the Parisian Crowd.
Stage Three. The Paris Revolt: July 1789. Storming of the Bastille
July 11. Louis now buoyed by the presence of troops sacked Necker. News of this spread like wildfire and members of the assembly braced for military force to dissolve them.

Crowds of Sans Culottes (mixture of craftsmen, shopkeepers, traders, labourers etc see Waller p.27) gathered at the Palais Royal where a call to arms was advocated. Stiired up by radical bourgeoisie such as Danton and Desmoulin. Search for weapons began.

July 11-12 crowds of poor menu people attacked customs posts. Food stores and prisons were attacked.

Proprietied and wealthy bourgeoisie alarmed. Things getting out of hand Paris Electors (those that had chosen the Third Estate deputies) alarmed at the prospect of anarchy met and formed a commune or committee to run the city and created a National Guard (Lafayette at its head) of citizen militia to protect property from menu people and from attack by King. (Where does Duc d’Orleans fit into all of this?)

Tension within revolutionary movement see p.61 Adcock

July 14, 1789. The Storming of the Bastille

Parisian crowd of 8000 seizes muskets and cannon but no ammunition. (Figures of crowd and of weapons differs in each text) Make way to Bastille. Crowd and National Guard impatient. Governor opens fire. Bastille stormed. Governor killed. Sans Culottes had taken part, not wealthy middle class. Royal troops had stood by, some defecting.

Louis had lost control of Paris.

  • Withdrew troops from Paris

  • Lost control of armed forces

  • Reinstated Necker

  • Confirmed Bailly as mayor of Paris and Lafayette as Head of National Guard.

  • Recognised new revolutionary council

20 000 nobles fled France.

The Municipal Revolution: King’s authority collapsed quickly in most French towns. His orders only obeyed if approved by National Constituent Assembly as named on July 7th.

Bourgeoisie played major part. Revolt took different forms. See Rees p.29-30. Everywhere National Guard were formed to control violence and prevent counter revolution.

Stage Four: The Peasant Revolution.

Peasants played no part in revolution until spring 1789.

1788 bad harvest. Rising price of bread. Misery and suffering in countryside.


From Jan 1789 grain storage and hoarders were attacked

Important because against backdrop of political events.

Calling if Estates-General led peasants to believe change, via King was about to happen.

Following Fall of Bastille, uprisings against taxes, the tithe and feudal dues spread across country.

Great Estates were where grain was stored. Landlords seen as hoarders. Hundreds of Chateaux were attacked, ransacked and burnt.

20 July-6 August 1789: The Great Fear.

  • Rumours spread that agents of aristocracy were to assembly militia were going to destroy the harvest.

  • Peasants took up arms, took out anger on landlords.

  • Great Fear spread peasant uprising throughout six provinces.

  • Created impression in Paris of a massive insurrection and collapse of all order

The August Decree: Enacted by National Assembly to abolish Feudal dues

The Women’s March on Versailles: massive protest march by 6000 – 7000 women accompanied by 20 000 National Guard to King’s Palace. King and Marie Antoinette taken back to Paris as were the National Assembly.

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