The French Revolution


Napoleon; picture taken from

  From 1750 to 1914, there were two major political revolutions that occurred. Both France and North America underwent extreme political restructuring after Europe lost many of their holdings in the Americas. Once the United States was founded after the American Revolution, the French were inspired to go through their own revolution. The following information is an outline of the main events you should know about in terms of the French Revolution. -MS

King Louis XIV; picture taken from

What Led Up to the French Revolution?

There were several events that influenced the French Revolution.  With a history of several generations that ruled as a monarchy, France was under a tight and traditional ruling method. The Bourbon kings, who continued to rule after the reign of Louis XIV, created an unfair, high-taxing political power that resulted in extreme unhappiness among the people of France. Becuase the noblitily continued to spend the country's money unfairly up until the rule of Louis XVI, the government was forced to raise the taxes. In addition to these unfair taxes, the following elements were also the main causes of the French Revolution:

  • Resentment of royal absolutism.
  • Resentment of the seigneurial system by peasants, wage-earners, and, to a lesser extent, the bourgeoisie
  • The rise of enlightenment ideals.
  • An unmanageable national debt, both caused by and exacerbating the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
  • Food scarcity in the months immediately before the revolution.
  • Resentment at noble privilege and dominance in public life by the ambitious professional classes.
  • Influence of the American Revolution.  

The Estates General

As Louis XVI began to make several changes to the government policies of France, he needed a governing body that would have a say in the reforms.  Thus, he called a meeting of the Estates General, which summoned representatives from each of the three estates that made up the French social ladder. The First Estate was comprised of the clergy; the Second Estate consisted of France's noble families; and the Third Estate was made up of peasants and the middle class, also known as the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, these three estates did not have equal say in things. They weren't even allowed to meet in the same room! While the First and Second estates wanted to reduce the amount of reforms, the Third Estate wanted extreme changes to be made to the financial, political, and social aspects of France. This estate's contrasting ideas was what led to the first major step in the French Revolution.

The National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath

 On June 17, 1789, the Third Estate, joined by a various collection of the clergy and nobility, changed its name to the National Assembly, representing their need for true representation of the French population. The First and Second Estates were absolutely appalled by this action, and as a result, locked the National Assembly out of Versailles. The National Assembly did not let this move affect them, so they assembled at a nearby indoor tennis court and agreed to the famous Oath of the Tennis Court , in which they vowed to stay together for the purpose of writing a constitution.

The Tennis Court Oath; June 17, 1789; picture taken from

The Storming of the Bastille

Once the National Assembly vowed to write a constitution, King Louis XVI sent the other estates to help. However, the arrival of these new members was abrupt and influenced the peasants to believe that the King might interfere with the writing of a fair constitutuion. As a result, they stormed a huge prison called the Bastille on July 14, 1789. This attack caused a great spread of anarchy that led several of France's peasants to attack the nobility and feudal institutions.


The Storming of the Bastille; July 14, 1789; picture taken from


The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

  This document was adopted by the National Assemly in August of 1789 in recognition of the natural rights given to man and was based on the ideas of the Enlightenment, the English Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. In this declaration, the ideas of freedom, equality, and rule of law were greatly emphasized. The National Assembly also abolished the feudal system and declared freedom of worship.

The Declaration; August 1789; picture taken from

The Convention

This group became the new ruling power under the constitution. Once in control, it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. It was led by the Jacobins, well-known group of radicals, who were eager to get rid of the royal family. In January of 1793, they beheaded the King Louis XVI for treason.


Reign of Terror; picture taken from

The Reign of Terror

This reign consisted of a wave of executions of presumed enemies of the state. Directed by the Committee of Public Safety, the Revolutionary government’s Terror was essentially a war dictatorship, instituted to rule the country in a national emergency. This Committee of Public Safety was led by Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins. Its title of safety is quite ironic due to the fact that it beheaded tens of thousands of French peoples. Unfortunately, this reign did not last long and ended after two years with the execution of Robespierre. In 1795, France composed yet another constitution.

The Directory

  Once the Reign of Terror was abolished, a new five-man government called the Directory was formed. This new group lacked overall reform skills, but did succeed at building up France's military. Out of this group rose Napoleon Bonaparte, who became French general by age 24. Due to his military strength and strategic planning skills, he was able to overtrhow the Directory in 1799 and declared himself the First Consul under yet another constitution.

Thoughts to Consider:

How does the French Revolution relate to the Russian Revolution? Who are the real people that start these revolutions; the peasants or the intellectuals?