Chapter 17 European Revolutions of Society and State, 1714-1815

Section 4 Revolutionary France

To many Europeans, the American Revolution showed that Enlightenment ideas could be put into practice in forming a new government. The French were particularly moved by the American example. The success of the American Revolution and the popularization of Enlightenment ideas led many to seek changes in the social and political conditions of France. These desires exploded into revolution in 1789.[cxlix] Rulers in other parts of Europe reacted strongly against the French Revolution, fearing that the unrest would spread to their territories.

The Old Regime

For more than 100 years, France had been the largest and most powerful European nation. However, beneath the appearance of stability lay the seeds of revolution. Within a few months in 1789,[cl] King Louis XVI lost his power to make laws, and eventually the people's elected representatives voted for his execution. The new rulers of France wrote a constitution and reformed many laws. Such radical change made many feel that they were living in a new era. They referred to the political system before 1789[cli] as the ancien regime, or Old Regime.

The Three Estates. The reasons for the French Revolution were complex. Since the Middle Ages, French society had been divided into three separate classes, known as the Three Estates. In the mid-1700s discontent grew among people of all three Estates, although for different reasons. The First Estate, composed of the Catholic clergy, had long been resented for their privileges and because they paid no taxes. The Second Estate, the aristocracy, was also resented because of their long-standing privileges, such as the right to collect money and services from peasants, and they also occupied the highest positions in the government and the army. Together, the First and Second Estates held most of the power and wealth in France.

            The Third Estate included everybody else in France—the majority of the population. The Third Estate, however, had its own informal social divisions. At the top were the city-dwelling middle classes—merchants, manufacturers, and professional people such as doctors and lawyers. In the middle were laborers and artisans. At the bottom of French society were peasants, those who made a living by working the land. Most peasants lived in inescapable poverty, yet were required to pay feudal dues to their lords. They paid rents for the land they worked, as well as the heaviest government tax, known as the taille. In addition, they paid one-tenth of their income—the tithe—to the church. Not all peasants were poor, however, and some had become quite wealthy.

            In the mid-1700s[clii] growing economic hardship increased the grievances of all three Estates. The already overburdened peasants suffered even more when a prolonged drought forced the price of bread to skyrocket, and hunger became a serious problem. The middle classes wanted the political power to match their economic strength, and they wanted important positions in the government and the army that only nobles could get. The nobility and the clergy, who had struggled successfully to regain the power and influence that Louis XIV had taken from them, wanted to prevent Louis XVI[cliii] from taking it away from them again.

The financial crisis. The immediate trigger of the French Revolution was a financial crisis. France had been in debt since Louis XIV’s wars. Both the Seven Years War and French support for the American Revolution had only added to the burden of debt. Louis XV[cliv] borrowed heavily from bankers to keep the government running. When warned that France would soon face a real crisis, he simply remarked, "It will survive for my time. After me, the deluge." 

            By 1787[clv] bankers refused to lend the government any more money. Financial disaster loomed. Reluctantly, Louis XVI decided to convene the Estates General, representatives from all three estates, at Versailles in May 1789.[clvi] The king hoped to gain approval for his plan to tax the wealthy.

The Revolution

Expectations for the meeting of the Estates General ran high. The Count de Mirabeau[clvii] wrote about the Estates General that “no National Assembly ever threatened to be so stormy as that which will decide the fate of the monarchy, and which is gathering in such haste and with so much mutual distrust.”[clviii]  The Abbé Sieyès,[clix] a clergyman, identified the grievances of the Third Estate: 

What is the Third Estate?  All. But an all that is fettered and oppressed. What would it be without the privileged order? It would be all; but free and flourishing. Nothing will go well without the Third Estate; everything would go considerably better without the two others. 

The National Assembly. Despite all hopes and expectations, the meeting of the Estates General initially disappointed the Third Estate. The First and Second Estates tried to outvote the Third Estate to retain their own privileges. After a period of deadlock and with the support of some members of the First Estate, the delegates of the Third Estate proclaimed themselves the National Assembly.   Outraged, Louis closed down the meeting. The delegates fled to a nearby tennis court. There they took the so-called Tennis Court Oath, pledging not to disband until they had written a constitution. Reluctantly, the king recognized the Assembly, and with the people's support it assumed power. Meanwhile, fearing that royal troops would crush the National Assembly, on July 14, 1789,[clx] the working people of Paris stormed the Bastille, a hated prison-fortress in the city, in search of weapons to defend the Assembly.

The Tennis Court Oath of the National Assembly. Taken from

The Great Fear. The turmoil in Paris contributed to a growing crisis that spread to the countryside. During the summer of 1789, peasants throughout France were caught up in what is called the Great Fear. As news of the uprisings in Paris and other cities spread to the countryside, people often exaggerated events, and belief in a conspiracy by the aristocracy was widespread. Peasants also became more angry as food shortages plagued the countryside. As rumors and fear increased, peasants revolted against local lords. Angry peasants broke into manor houses, terrorized aristocrats, destroyed possessions, and burned records in hopes of eliminating their debts. All France was now engulfed in revolution. 

The end of the Old Regime. Many members of the National Assembly believed that the only way to end the violence was to remove the oppression and injustice that caused it. They abolished the special privileges of the First and Second Estates. The Assembly also adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Strongly influenced by the English Bill of Rights, the writings of Rousseau, and the American Declaration of Independence, this document enshrined the principles of the French Revolution: "liberty, equality, fraternity."  In 1791[clxi] the National Assembly adopted Franc’s first constitution, which greatly reduced the powers of the king and set up an elected Legislative Assembly.

            The new constitution did not entirely embody the ideals of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In 1791[clxii] the playwright and revolutionary Olympe de Gouges wrote A Declaration of the Rights of Women and Citizenesses in which she called on the Assembly to extend the same rights to women. But the National Assembly would not consider the idea of including women in the political process.[clxiii]  They also refused to allow Jews to take public office.[clxiv] By limiting the vote to French men over twenty-five who paid a certain amount in taxes, the Assembly placed politics back in the hands of wealthy men.[clxv] The new government went into effect in October 1791,[clxvi] but lasted less than a year. 

France at war. As news of these revolutionary events spread across Europe, many of Louis’s fellow monarchs were horrified. Louis, his wife Marie Antoinette[clxvii], and their children soon fled Paris, but they were quickly recognized and returned to their palace under arrest. Marie-Antoinette's brother Emperor Leopold II[clxviii] of Austria and King Frederick William II[clxix] of Prussia issued a declaration calling for the restoration of Louis XVI to power.

            In April 1792,[clxx] with a nearly unanimous vote, the Legislative Assembly voted to declare war on Austria. Soon an army of Austrian and Prussian troops invaded France and headed toward Paris, touching off mass uprisings in the city. A group of radicals seized control of the city government and set up an organization called the Commune. The Commune justly accused Louis XVI of plotting with foreign monarchs. In August[clxxi] troops imprisoned Louis XVI and his family. 

Republican France

In late 1792[clxxii] a National Convention proposed a new constitution, which included universal manhood suffrage—the right of all adult men to vote. The National Convention governed France for three years, during which it proclaimed the end of the monarchy and the beginning of a republic. The National Convention found Louis XVI guilty of plotting against the nation. In 1793[clxxiii] Louis lost his head to the guillotine, a newly invented device that had been designed to make executions of criminals as quick and painless as possible.

            Meanwhile, the French army had not only stopped the Austrian and Prussian invasion, but had also invaded the Austrian Netherlands. The National Convention then declared that the French armies would spread the Revolution and liberate all the peoples of Europe. In 1793, the entire nation mobilized for war: 

Young men shall go forth to battle; married men shall forge weapons and transport munitions; women shall make tents and clothing, and shall serve in hospitals; children will make lint from old linen; and old men shall be brought to public places to arouse the courage of soldiers.[clxxiv] 

The decision to export the Revolution alarmed all the monarchs of Europe. Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Sardinia[clxxv] joined Austria and Prussia to form an alliance, called the First Coalition, against France. They drove French troops out of the Austrian Netherlands and invaded France once more.

The Reign of Terror. Not all of the Revolution's opponents were from outside. Some people still supported the Old Regime. To meet the danger of revolt from within, the National Convention declared an emergency and appointed a Committee of Public Safety to coordinate the defense of the new regime. The Committee soon initiated a Reign of Terror, a brutal program to silence critics of the republic. The Law of Suspects, issued in 1793, defined suspected enemies of the republic: 

Those who have shown themselves the enemies of liberty, those who cannot justify their means of existence and the performance of their civic duties, those of the former nobles who have not constantly manifested their attachment to the revolution, and those who have emigrated during the interval between July 1, 1789, to April 8, 1792.[clxxvi] 

The Reign of Terror lasted for less than a year, but its effects were harsh. A Revolutionary Tribunal swiftly arrested, tried, and executed many people on mere suspicion. Marie-Antoinette was an early victim, but the Reign of Terror[clxxvii] was directed against people from all classes suspected of disloyalty to the Revolution. Georges-Jacques Danton[clxxviii] and Maximilien Robespierre,[clxxix] radical members of the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety, sent many of their political opponents to the guillotine. Robespierre's ruthless policy of suppression, however, eventually aroused fear even among his supporters. After ordering the execution of some of his colleagues, including Danton, in July 1794[clxxx] Robespierre himself was arrested and guillotined. With his death, the Reign of Terror ended.  

The death of Robespierre. Taken from

The Directory. The radical Reign of Terror inspired a conservative reaction. In 1795[clxxxi] the National Convention drafted yet another constitution. Universal manhood suffrage was eliminated, and only male property owners could vote. The wealthy controlled the government once more. The new constitution established an executive branch of five directors. The government was known as the Directory.

            Although the Directory governed France for four years, it pleased almost no one. The directors quarreled among themselves and were unable to agree on any reforms. When prices began skyrocketing and the directors did nothing to improve the situation, crowds protested. A worker in Paris summed up his feelings:

Under Robespierre blood was spilled and we had bread. Now blood is no longer spilled, and we have no bread. Perhaps we must spill some blood in order to have bread.

The Directory soon became as unpopular as the Old Regime, and it too went bankrupt.

            In 1799[clxxxii] the directors were dismissed, leaving the way open for change. Troops with bayonets surrounded the legislature and forced most of its members to leave. Those that remained turned the government over to a 30-year-old general, Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon later remarked, "I found the crown of France lying on the ground, and I picked it up with my sword." 

Section 4 Review

IDENTIFY and explain the significance of the following:

Old Regime

Louis XVI

Estates General

National Assembly

universal manhood suffrage

Reign of Terror

Georges-Jacques Danton

Maximilien Robespierre

Napoleon Bonaparte

1.   Main Idea  Why and how did the French Revolution begin?

2.  Main Idea   What was the purpose of the Reign of Terror?

3.  Government  How did revolutionaries in France try to reform the government?

4.   Synthesizing  How did the revolution change society in France? In answering, consider each of the following groups: (a) the aristocracy and clergy; (b) the middle classes; (c) the peasants; and (d) women.