The French Revolution occurred from 1789 to 1799. It is a monumental period in world history, marked by its profound impact on human rights, governance, and societal structure. It was a time when the cry for “liberty, equality, fraternity” echoed beyond the borders of France, inspiring a wave of revolutions across the globe.
The Three Estates
Before the Revolution, French society was divided into three classes, known as the Three Estates.
The First Estate comprised the clergy, including priests who managed the Catholic Church and certain governmental functions. They maintained records of births, deaths, and marriages and could impose a 10% tax called the tithe.
The Second Estate included French nobility and royal family members, excluding the King. This estate was exempt from taxes and enjoyed exclusive rights, such as bearing arms and hunting, and also levied taxes on the Third Estate.
The Third Estate, also known as the Commoners, encompassed the rest of the population, from peasant farmers to the affluent bourgeoisie, making up 96% of France’s population but lacking the privileges of the first two estates.
Before the Revolution, France was mired in a deep economic crisis, exacerbated by fiscal mismanagement, costly involvement in foreign wars, and an archaic tax system that burdened the peasantry while sparing the nobility. Social inequalities were stark among the three Estates, with the Third Estate having little to no say in governance.
The Enlightenment era, with its emphasis on reason, individual rights, and scepticism of traditional authority, also played an important role in setting the stage for revolution.
The Revolution unfolds
The Tennis Court Oath
The Tennis Court Oath was a significant event during the early stages of the French Revolution, on 20 June 1789.
King Louis XVI convened the Estates General (the equivalent of the British Parliament) to address the acute financial emergency facing his administration and the country. This assembly was made up of the Three Estates. The representatives of the Commoners anticipated reforms, but their hopes were quickly dashed, leading them to reject the monarchy’s authority.
Louis XVI locked the Third Estate delegates out of their meeting room. In response, these delegates convened in an indoor tennis court nearby. Feeling underrepresented, they formed the National Assembly. There, they took a solemn oath not to disperse until they had drafted a new constitution for France that would ensure a fair representation and limit the powers of the monarchy.
This act of defiance was significant because it marked the first time members of the Third Estate openly rebelled against the authority of the King. It symbolised the shift from a monarchy governed by divine right to a system that recognised the sovereignty and collective power of the people. The Tennis Court Oath is often considered a foundational moment in the development of modern parliamentary democracy in France, setting the stage for the subsequent events of the French Revolution.
The Storming of the Bastille
The Storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 marked the Revolution’s violent start, leading to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which proclaimed the principles of liberty, property, and resistance to oppression.
The Bastille, a medieval fortress, prison, and armoury located in Paris, had come to symbolise the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchy and its oppressive regime. Although the prison held only a handful of prisoners at the time, its capture was symbolic of the people’s revolt against oppression and the beginning of the French people’s fight for freedom and democracy.
The immediate cause of the storming was the people’s demand for gunpowder and arms stored in the Bastille, as well as the release of prisoners believed to be held there. Tensions in Paris were high: economic hardship, widespread discontent with the monarchy’s inability to manage the state’s finances, and the mobilisation of royal troops around Paris had stoked fears of an impending military crackdown on the National Assembly and the general population.
The attack on the Bastille was sparked by the dismissal of Jacques Necker, a popular minister who was seen as sympathetic to the revolutionary cause. This act was interpreted by many Parisians as a final straw, leading to widespread riots and the eventual assault on the Bastille.
The fall of the Bastille demonstrated the power of the people in direct action against the old regime and led to the eventual downfall of the monarchy. It is celebrated annually in France as Bastille Day, a national holiday that commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution.
The French Republic
The French Republic was officially established on 22 September 1792, following the abolition of the monarchy. This date marks the beginning of the First French Republic. It coincides with the victory of the French revolutionary forces at the Battle of Valmy. The establishment of the Republic was a culmination of the events that followed the start of the French Revolution in 1789, which sought to dismantle the absolute monarchy and the feudal system.
Key players in the establishment of the French Republic included:
- Maximilien Robespierre: A leading member of the Jacobin Club and the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre was instrumental in the radical phase of the Revolution. His advocacy for the Republic and his role in the Reign of Terror were pivotal in shaping the revolutionary government.
- Georges Danton: Another prominent figure, Danton, was known for his oratory skills and leadership during the early stages of the Revolution. As the first Minister of Justice, Danton played a significant role in overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Republic. However, his influence waned as Robespierre rose.
- Jean-Paul Marat: A radical journalist and politician, Marat was an influential voice in the Revolution through his newspaper, L’Ami du Peuple. His calls for action against the enemies of the Revolution contributed to the radical atmosphere that led to the establishment of the Republic.
- The Girondins: A political faction within the Jacobin Club, the Girondins initially played a leading role in the legislative assembly and supported the establishment of a republic. However, their moderate stance on various issues eventually led to their downfall at the hands of the more radical Jacobins.
- The Sans-culottes: While not a single individual, the Sans-culottes, representing the militant working-class Parisians, were crucial in the push towards a republic. Their protests and demands for more radical changes pressured the revolutionary government to abolish the monarchy and establish the Republic.
Death of the King
The transition from monarchy to Republic was marked by significant political and social upheaval, including the trial and execution of King Louis XVI in January 1793.
Louis XVI, the King of France, was executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793. The decision to execute the King was based on charges of high treason and crimes against the state.
By early 1791, the King and his family had been placed under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace for over a year and a half. Distressed by the Revolution’s escalating extremism, especially its hostility toward the church, the King secretly escaped from the capital. The escape scheme, devised by Count Axel von Fersen with the support of Marie Antoinette, involved a carriage journey to Montmedy, a fortified location close to the German frontier manned by loyalist forces.
Despite numerous mishaps, the royal party reached within 30 kilometres of their destination before a local postmaster recognised the King. They were quickly apprehended and escorted back to Paris under heavy guard.
While seemingly a minor event on its own, the botched escape to Varennes effectively sealed the fate of any middle-class aspirations for a constitutional monarchy in France. The revolutionaries accused Louis XVI of conspiring with foreign monarchies to overthrow the nascent French Republic and restore his absolute rule.
The King’s attempt to abandon the Revolution revealed that he could not be relied upon. Public opinion drastically turned against the King, leading to his arrest and trial.
The trial of Louis XVI was a pivotal moment in the French Revolution, symbolising the definitive break from the Ancien Régime and the monarchy’s absolute power. His execution marked the end of monarchical rule in France and the beginning of a more radical phase of the Revolution, leading to the Reign of Terror.
Death of the queen
The Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, met a fate similar to her husband’s during the French Revolution. She was executed by guillotine on 16 October 1793, less than a year after the execution of Louis XVI. Following the King’s execution, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned and eventually tried by the Revolutionary Tribunal.
The charges against her were numerous, including depletion of the national treasury, conspiracy against the security of the state, and high treason, based mainly on her correspondence with foreign powers that were considered enemies of the French Republic. Additionally, she faced accusations of moral corruption and extravagant spending, which had long made her unpopular with the French public.
Like that of Louis XVI, her trial was highly politicised, reflecting the deep animosity toward the monarchy and the desire among revolutionaries to eradicate its influence. Marie Antoinette’s execution marked the further consolidation of the Revolution and the Republic’s efforts to break decisively with the past and the Ancien Régime. Her death, like her husband’s, symbolised the radical transformation of French society and politics during the Revolution.
The Reign of Terror
The Reign of Terror, also known as the Terror, was a period of extreme violence and political purges during the French Revolution, lasting from September 1793 to July 1794. It was characterised by mass executions of perceived enemies of the Revolution, carried out primarily through the use of the guillotine.
The government, led by the Committee of Public Safety under the influence of figures such as Maximilien Robespierre, aimed to protect the Revolution from its enemies and extend its ideals through a radical policy enforcing compliance and loyalty.
During this time, tens of thousands of people were executed, including former allies and members of the revolutionary government who were accused of being traitors or counter-revolutionaries. The Reign of Terror sought to purge France of those considered a threat to the revolutionary order, leading to widespread fear, suspicion, and, ultimately, a backlash against its architects.
The period ended with the fall of Robespierre, who was arrested and executed in July 1794, an event that marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction, a movement that sought to wind down the excesses of the Terror and move the Revolution in a more moderate direction.
The Reign of Terror remains one of the most controversial and debated periods of the French Revolution, symbolising the extreme measures that revolutionary governments may resort to to preserve their ideals and power.
The Thermidorian Reaction
The Thermidorian Reaction, which occurred in the French Revolution, refers to the political and social upheaval that followed the fall of Maximilien Robespierre on 9 Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794). This period marked a significant shift away from the radical policies of the Reign of Terror. It led to the establishment of the more moderate Directory government.
The revolutionaries created and implemented the French Revolutionary Calendar as part of their efforts to break with the past and establish a new, rational order. The calendar was designed to remove religious and royalist influences from the way time was measured. Years were counted from the establishment of the First French Republic in 1792, making 1794 the Year II.
Key Aspects of the Thermidorian Reaction:
- End of the Reign of Terror: The most immediate and notable effect of the Thermidorian Reaction was the dismantling of the Reign of Terror, the period of extreme revolutionary fervour and mass executions. The fall of Robespierre, a leading figure during the Terror, signalled the end of this radical phase.
- Political Shift: There was a shift in political power from the Jacobins, who had been the driving force behind the Reign of Terror, to more moderate and conservative factions within the revolutionary government. This change led to a rollback of some of the most extreme revolutionary policies.
- Economic and Social Changes: The Thermidorian Reaction also brought about economic and social changes, including efforts to stabilise the economy and address rampant inflation. The government sought to restore some semblance of normalcy in daily life and reduce the pervasive fear and instability that had characterised the Reign of Terror.
- Reopening of Churches: One notable social change was the reopening of churches, which had been closed and repressed during the height of the anti-clerical movement in the Revolution.
- Retribution Against Jacobins: The period saw a wave of retribution against former Jacobin leaders and supporters of the Reign of Terror, with many being arrested and some executed.
- Constitution of the Year III: In 1795, the Constitution of the Year III was adopted, establishing the Directory as the new executive authority in France. This five-member committee was intended to provide more stable and moderate governance compared to the Committee of Public Safety.
The Thermidorian Reaction is significant as it marked a turning point in the French Revolution, ending the most radical phase and beginning a period of relative moderation. It reflected the weariness of the French people with the excesses of the Terror and their desire for a return to more normal and stable governance. However, the period of the Directory that followed was marked by its own challenges, including political corruption and continued social unrest, setting the stage for the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Directory was the governing five-member committee that ruled France from 2 November 1795 until 9 November 1799, marking the final phase of the French Revolution before the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. This period, known as the Directory era, followed the fall of the Committee of Public Safety and the end of the Reign of Terror, and it was established under the Constitution of the Year III.
The Directory took power as a reaction against the extremes of the Reign of Terror, which had seen thousands executed by the revolutionary government under Robespierre. After Robespierre’s fall in July 1794 (9th Thermidor Year II), a period known as the Thermidorian Reaction began, leading to a push for more moderate governance. The French populace and political factions sought stability, economic recovery, and an end to the radical policies and violent purges of the previous years.
The establishment of the Directory was part of a broader effort to create a more balanced and stable government. The Constitution of the Year III aimed to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single individual or a small group, as had happened with Louis XVI and later with Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. The Directory was intended to be a collective executive body, with each director having an equal say in the country’s governance.
Key Characteristics and Challenges:
- Governance: The Directory was characterised by its executive authority, with legislative power vested in two new chambers: the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients.
- Economic Policies: The Directory struggled with financial crises, including inflation and widespread corruption.
- Foreign Policy: This period saw continued warfare with a coalition of European monarchies opposed to the revolutionary government in France.
- Internal Conflict: The Directory faced significant internal opposition from royalists on the right and Jacobins on the left, leading to several insurrections and coups.
The downfall of the Directory was precipitated by its inability to resolve the financial crisis, manage internal dissent, and decisively win the ongoing wars. The coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) led by Napoleon Bonaparte effectively ended the Directory, replacing it with the Consulate and marking the end of the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon’s power in France.
The Directory’s tenure is often seen as a period of political instability and corruption. It was also a crucial transitional phase that moved France away from the radicalism of the Reign of Terror towards the establishment of a more stable, if not entirely successful, form of republican governance.
Legacy of the French Revolution
The Revolution fundamentally altered the fabric of French society, dismantling the feudal system and setting the foundations for modern democratic governance. The Napoleonic Wars further spread revolutionary ideals, influencing the development of nations and the rise of nationalism.
The French Revolution’s legacy is complex. It is celebrated for promoting universal rights and criticised for the violence and instability it unleashed. It remains a pivotal event in French collective memory and a subject of global historical significance, demonstrating the power of the people to change the course of their governance and societal norms.
With its dramatic shifts and enduring impacts, the French Revolution highlights the struggle for liberty, equality, and fraternity. Its legacy, marked by both achievement and controversy, inspires debates on freedom, governance, and human rights, underscoring its significance in the annals of world history.