The French Revolution

The French Revolution

The French Revolution was a period of radical social and political disorder in France and Europe. French society underwent massive changes as feudal, aristocratic and religious privileges ceased to exist. The monarchy was abolished, and old ideas about hierarchy and tradition gave in to new Enlightenment principles of citizenship and inalienable rights. The French Revolution changed the world and even today the French people celebrate the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th, 1789, as their national holiday. Following is a brief overview of this epoch-making event.


French Revolution started in 1789. The series of events started by the middle class shook the upper classes. The people revolted against the cruel regime of monarchy. This revolution put forward the ideas of liberty, fraternity and equality.

The Revolution began on 14th of July 1789 with the storming of the fortress-prison, the Bastille, which was hated by all, because it stood for the despotic power of the king.

Most Important Causes

  1. International: struggle for hegemony and Empire outstrips the fiscal resources of the state
  2. Political conflict: conflict between the monarchy and aristocrats over the “reform” of the tax system led to paralysis and bankruptcy.
  3. The Enlightenment: one variant reinforces traditional aristocratic constitutionalism, as in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748); Rousseau introduces new notions of good government in Social Contract (1762), with the argument for popular sovereignty
  4. Social antagonism between two rising groups: the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie
  5. Ineffective ruler: Louis XVI
  6. Economic hardship, especially the agrarian crisis of 1788-89 generated popular discontent, and disorders caused by food shortages.

Revolutionary Process in Stages

Four Phases, 1789-1799.

  • 1789-1792. A liberal phase under a constitutional monarchy and national legislature (National Assembly, followed by Legislative Assembly).
  • 1792-1794: A radical, republican phase that led to authoritarian terror under the Committee of Public Safety, August 10, 1792 to 9 Thermidor (July)1794.
  • 1794-99: Thermidor & the Directory: A reactionary phase in response to the excesses of radical republicanism (universal male franchise) and of terror.
  • 1799: The Napoleonic coup d’etat, the ending of the Revolution by military coup and the restoration of “order” and domestic peace through an authoritarian regime.

The Big Picture

The French Revolution was both destructive and creative:

  • It was an unprecedented effort to break with the past and to forge a new state and new national community based on the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity.
  • After the old government was replaced, differences over the meaning of those principles and the ways they were to be put into practice grew more salient and serious.
  • Shaped and driven by passionate ideological differences, violence and war, the Revolution continued until a stable state organization was consolidated, in part through the use of military force.
  • The Revolution bequeathed to the French and to the world a new and enduring political vision: at the heart of progress lay liberation from the past, egalitarianism, and broadly based representative government.


  • Reform vs. Revolution. The first modern revolution focused on the creation of new rights, not the restoration of traditional or old rights.
  • From liberty = privilege to liberty = political participation.
  • The level of violence increased after the Revolution of 1789.
  • An unprecedented mobilization of ordinary people in the political process. The Sans Culotte movement in Paris.
  • Renewed War in the Competitive State System. The renewed war for hegemony and empire launched in April 1792 radicalized the Revolution and led to greater violence not only abroad but also within France, creating a civil war internally and both the risk and reality of foreign invasion. This led to the Terror of 1793-94.
  • From reliance to domination by the army. The continuation of war after 1795 made way for the coup d’etat of Napoleon in 1799 and the conquest of the Republic by the army.

Major Events

1788: Louis XVI calls for the meeting of the Estates General 1789: Sieyès publishes What is the Third Estate?

1789: June 17-20, the Third Estate at Versailles declares itself to be the National

July 14, Seizure of the Bastille

August, the abolition of feudalism (August 4th) and the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen (August 26)

October, Women’s march to Versailles. King returned to Paris.

1790: July 12, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which makes the church subordinate to the state and calls upon the clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the new State.  Many clergy refuse.

1791: June 20-21, Louis XVI and the royal family attempt to flee the country but are captured at Varennes and returned to Paris: the faith in the King declines sharply.

1792: April 20. France declares war on Austria, and subsequently on Prussia, Britain and Russia.

August 10, The Second Revolution: the Tuillery Palace is attacked by Parisians, the monarchy is overthrown in a ‘second’ revolution.

September 21, The monarchy is abolished and the Republic is declared.

1793: January 21, Louis Capet, former Louis XVI, is executed

August, Levee en masse, the mobilization of the country to secure the Repbulic and defeat invading armies.

September 1793-July 1794, War and Terror: the authoritarian rule of France by the Committee of Public Safety, in which Robespierre was one of 12 members but often thought to be the leader.

1794: the 9th of Thermidor (July 28), Overthrow and execution of Robespierre and other members of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety.

1795: August 22, The reorganization of the Republic into a regime known as the Directory, a collective executive. A new constitution attempts to turn the clock back to 1789 by, among other things, limiting the franchise to men of property.

The Sans-Culotte movement is subsequently repressed.

1799: November, Napoleon’s coup d’etat.


  • The creation of modern democratic republicanism (overthrow and de-sacralization of monarchy; establishment of representative government on a more or less broad franchise ).
  • The establishment of the concept and model of modern revolution.
  • The strengthening of the central state.
  • The emergence of the nation-state.
  • The strengthening of the propertied middle class or bourgeoisie as a part of the social and political elite.
  • Preservation of noble as well as peasant property; accumulation of much new property by the bourgeoisie through the purchase of national lands—lands confiscated from the church and emigres who left France during the Revolution.
  • The creation of a revolutionary tradition centered on the belief that revolution was a means for bringing progressive change and further extension of popular participation and popular sovereignty.

French Revolution exemplifies late 18th century political transformations aimed at advancing equality and political liberty.

  • As stated in the Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen: popular sovereignty = theoretical basis of liberty; equality meant equal rights and equal treatment under the law.
  • In practice, equality limited and political participation was expanded to the propertied but not consistently to working men; not at all to women.
  • Mass uprisings were important in forcing change.
  • French Revolution became the classical model for modern revolutions.
  • Liberal and national political ideals of the Revolution would spread through Europe in the 19th century.

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