The French Revolution

An Educational Site


Preliminary Steps that started The French Revolution

The English Civil War which created the English Bill of Rights during their “Glorious Revolution”. The American Declaration of Independence.   Thomas Jefferson helped the French craft their Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles regarding enlightenment philosophies.   Because the public became literate the common man/woman was recognizing that they should be able to have liberty too.   The age of monarch’s rule was failing around Europe despite the influence of the Aristocrats.   The term “The People” was beginning to take on a new meaning.   And it didn’t mean Aristocratic Rule.   Oliver Cromwell was able to rule fairly and justly in England.   England started the cascade of “cards” that swept the world.   By the 1700s “The People” were beginning to understand their power in numbers.

  The American experiment of defying the King was quite unheard of for a foreign small group of colonies.

There was a lack of food due to a drouth and French government was broke because of many years of wars.   The extravagant living of the Aristocracy at Versalles made things ever worse.   As Louis XVI levied heavy taxes of many items that made the common people very angry.   But the worst tax was on bread.   It was a tax that set off a bonfire of anger of the common people.   People were starving in France while the Aristocrats living beyond their means.   Something was going to blow, and it did.

The French National Assembly of May 5th 1789 called by Louis XVI

The Estates-General had been called May 5th 1789 to deal with France's financial crisis, but promptly fell to squabbling over its own structure. Its members had been elected to represent the estates of the realm: the First Estate(the clergy), the Second Estate (the-nobility) and the Third Estate (which, in theory, represented all of the commoners).
The Third Estate had been granted "double representation"—that is, twice as many delegates as each of the other estates—but at the opening session on May 5, 1789 they were informed that all voting would be "by estates" not "by head", so their double representation was to be meaningless in terms of power. They refused this and proceeded to meet separately.

Shuttle diplomacy among the estates continued without success until May 27; on May 28, the representatives of the Third Estate began to meet on their own, calling themselves theCommunes ("Commons") and proceeding with their "verification of powers" independently of the other bodies; from June 13 to June 17 they were gradually joined by some of the nobles and the majority of the clergy and other people such as the peasants.

Louis XVI, at the request of the nobles, closed the meeting hall of the third estate.

The third estate then met at a nearby indoor tennis court and made a pledge called the tennis court oath.
This oath declared that they were a national assembly and that they would draw up a new constitution for France.
(The First Estate was the Clergy,   The Second Estate was the Nobility.   The Third Estate was the common people.)  

First Revolution (1789-1791)

Then reformers from the ranks of the first and second estates joined them, Louis then recognized the national assembly.

In the city of Paris, wild rumors and anarchy became widespread.

On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the royal prison-fortress, the bastille, in order to arm and protect themselves. getting these arms saved the national assembly from annihilation. July 14, bastille day, is celebrated in France (like our 4th of July).

A new government for Paris was formed under the leadership of General Lafayette (a hero in the American Revolution).

Lafayette formed a people's army called the national guard.
A new tricolor flag of red, white, and blue stripes was adopted.
The slogan of the revolution became liberty, equality, and fraternity.
In the countryside, the "great fear" was undertaken by the peasants. they proceeded to attack the large landed estates and burn public records of their taxes and debts.In August 1789, the national assembly met and passed a series of laws that swept away the old regime (ancien rÉgime).

The feudal privileges of the nobles were ended. their tax exempt status was eliminated.
The church "tithe" was done away with.A "declaration of the rights of man" was also adopted in August 1789

(1)  it declared equality under the law for all.
(2)  it established freedom of speech, the press, and of religion.
(3)  it stated men have the natural right to life, liberty, and property.
(4)  right to due process of law and trial by jury for all people.

Drastic Changes in France

By this time, many nobles became emigres (emigrants) who fled France and vowed to return and restore the old regime.
Remaining nobles urged the king to use force to restore the old order.
In October 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the palace of versailles and forced the king to move to Paris. the national assembly also relocated to Paris.
The national assembly met and between the years 1789 and 1791 passed over 2,000 laws.
It confiscated church lands and offered them at public sale thus alleviating the national debt.

A New Organization of French Provinces

French provinces were abolished and France was divided into 83 uniform districts, thus reorganizing the central government's administration of France.

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy was passed in 1790.

it placed the church under the control of the government by paying church salaries, calling for the election of priests and bishops, and requiring the clergy to take oaths of allegiance to the government. the pope forbade the French clergy from taking such an oath, and many refused to take it.

the civil constitution of the clergy was the greatest mistake of the early revolutionary leaders because it turned many of the catholic peasants against the revolution.

A New Constitution of 1791

The national assembly drew up a new constitution for France, the constitution of 1791.

The first written constitution in a large European country.
It created a limited monarchy.
It divided power among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.
The king could not make or veto any laws passed by the legislative assembly.
It created the legislative assembly which first met in October 1791.
To be elected to the legislative assembly, one had to be a taxpayer and to own considerable property. thus control of government was in the hands of the small but powerful members of the middle class.
The Near Escape
In June of 1791, king Louis XVI tried to escape from France in order to organize resistance abroad.
He was caught near the border to the Austrian Netherlands and returned to Paris under arrest. this escape attempt resulted in his great loss of personal prestige among the people.

The legislative assembly's structure:

The 745 delegates, mostly from the middle class, formed into three groups who had different ideas for the revolution itself.

The assembly divided the country into 83 departments.
Delegates sat on the right, center, and left sides of the assembly hall.


On the left were the Jacobins who were radicals who favored a republic and far reaching social changes.
In August of 1791, emperor Leopold II of Austria and Frederick William II of Prussia declared that Louis XVI should be restored to full power.

War Declared

The French legislative assembly responded by declaring war on Austria and Prussia.
Austria and Prussia responded by invading France. this was part of the first coalition against France (1792-1797).

The Duke of Brunswick, commander of the astro-Prussian armies, scored major victories and issued a "manifesto" stating his intentions to restore Louis XVI (July 1792).
Then Louis XVI published this manifesto, it appeared that he was in collusion with the coalition to undermine the revolution.

The French army, now under dumouriez, won a major victory on September 20, 1792 against the astro-Prussian invasion, and the national convention met immediately after this victory, i.e., September 21, 1792.

About 2,000 French aristocrats and royalist supporters were guillotined without trial in the September massacres of 1792.

Second Revolution (1792-1795)

This second revolution was much more radical than the first revolution.
The national convention and the first French republic (1792-1795).On the right sat the Girondists (the constitutional monarchist and the moderates who had been part of the legislative assembly were now not present at all).

In the middle were the plain.
On the left were the Jacobins led by Danton and Robespierre.
On the extreme left were radicals led by Jean Paul Marat, including the sans-culottes.
The national convention announced the beginning of the first French republic. France is thus no longer a constitutional monarchy but now the first republic.
It tried Louis XVI for treason and, by a narrow margin, sentenced him to the guillotine in January 1793. his queen, Marie Antoinette, was also later guillotined.
The Girondists were expelled from the convention in June 1793 at the insistence of the sans-culotte who demanded that the convention be purged of all moderates. this increased civil war activity particularly in the vendee, lyon, and marseille.The National Convention.

The national convention, now under a Jacobin dictatorship, set up a type of war cabinet called the committee of public safety to face the first coalition which England had also joined against France.
The committee of public safety was a committee of 12 dictators led by Danton and Robespierre. It adopted universal conscription for all men between the ages of 18-25.

War on Europe

The government declared its intention to March on the rest of Europe to export the ideas of the revolution. this decision to export the revolution alarmed Europe into maintaining the coalition.

The Reign of Terror

The committee of public safety began the reign of terror, which lasted from September of 1793 to July 1794.

During it, tens of thousands of people were sent to the guillotine, mostly from the former third estate and particularly from the vendee and lyon, i.e., over 70% of the executions. other areas remained untouched.

In time, members of the national convention became so alarmed at the committee of public safety that they arrested Robespierre and guillotined him on the 10th of Thermidor (July 28).

The Thermidorian reaction (1794-1795)

More Stable Times

More stable types ended the reign of terror and the darkest days of the French revolution.
The power of the Jacobins and of the sans-culottes was broken.
French armies were able to successfully defend France against the first coalition. much of the success of the French armies centered on the ability to mass recruit through conscription; maneuver more quickly than royal armies of the coalition; to fight with more zeal than the first coalition, and the ability to keep the armies supplied.

Directory (1795-1799)The Constitution of 1795 (3rd)

The national convention adopted a new constitution of 1795,                                                 which was more conservative in nature.
This is the third constitution, i.e., 1791, 1793 and now 1795 of the revolution.
The executive branch was made up of five men called directors, and the government became known as the directory. they attempted to command a position near to the center of the political spectrum. they had enemies from the right who wanted to restore the king and from the left who wanted much more reform. the directory did not tolerate opposition from either side.
Then the Sans Culottes tried to overthrow the directory in 1795, a young gen. Napoleon Bonaparte dispersed them with cannon fire.

The five directors, only average leaders, fought among themselves while European armies were organizing a second coalition against France. one main reason for a 2nd coalition was that France continued to export the revolution encouraging wars of liberation in other countries. under the directory, France retreated from the ideals of the revolution internally but spread the ideals of the revolution externally.

Napoleon Bonaparte

During the period of the directory, Napoleon Bonaparte was given command of the French army fighting the Hapsburgs in Italy. he was very successful and Austria was forced to give the Austrian Netherlands to France.

Coup d’ etat   November 9, 1799

On November 9, 1799, a coup d'etat overthrew the directory. it was led by Napoleon and two members of the directory.
The Consulate   consulate (1799-1804)
The new government that was formed was called the consulate, and Napoleon was made first consul.
The new government kept the outward appearance of a republic until 1804 when the first republic ends by the proclamation of napoleon as emperor but was actually a military dictatorship from 1799 to 1814.Summary of major events in chronological order

National assembly (legislative assembly)
National convention
Committee of public safety (reign of terror)
Thermidorian reaction
Napoleon as first consul
First French empire
Napoleon as emperor

The Age of Napoleon

Between the years 1799 and 1814, Napoleon had the greatest single influence on France and the rest of Europe as well.

No other person ever came nearer to forcing a political unity on the whole continent of Europe.
As a youth he attended military school in France and graduated an artillery officer.
The French revolution made it possible for him to rise rapidly.
After he saved the directory from the Sans Culottes in 1795, he was made a brigadier general at age 24.

In 1796, as commander of the French army in northern Italy against the hapsburgs, he displayed the military tactics that would make him a military genius:
Rapid deployment of forces to confuse and divide the enemy.
Attacking with massive concentrations of artillery and troops at critical points on the battlefield.

Building an "esprit de corps" among his troops that was unmatched anywhere else and created the legion of honor mostly for the military.
In 1798-99, Napoleon, with the directory's blessing, launched his Egyptian expedition. it was a military disaster but Napoleon came back to France a hero and saved France from the second coalition.1799 The Coup d etat.

In 1799, he staged his "coup d'etat," overthrowing the directory and setting up the consulate, with himself as first consul.

He submitted his new constitution (France's 4th in 10 years) to a plebiscite, a vote of the people, and it was approved by a vast majority. this constitution gave almost complete power to the first consul.

1802 Consul for Life

In 1802, by plebiscite, he became first consul for life.
In 1804, he submitted to plebiscite a new constitution, ending the consulate and establishing the first French empire.
He was proclaimed Emperor Napoleon i in 1804. thus, he officially ends the first republic of France. Napoleon proved to be an able statesman of France.
In 1801, while still first consul, he signed a concordat with the catholic church. he thus disarmed the threat of counter revolution among the catholic peasants. catholicism becomes the "preferred" religion of France but he did tolerate other religions. land confiscated during the revolution from the church was not returned. he restored the Gregorian calendar.
He reformed the tax structure and no one was tax-exempt because of birth or privilege. people began to pay their taxes.

To his major credit he codified all of France's civil, commercial, and criminal laws. it was called the Napoleonic code. it made France a legally uniform country.
The Napoleonic code also marked a trend to centralize and organize power on a national level.• This had begun with Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV, but was interrupted by This had begun with Richelieu, Mazarin, and Louis XIV, but was interrupted by Louis XV and Louis XVI The Napoleonic code was to be exported by his troops to form the basis of many European legal systems as well as in latin America.

He founded a system of national education from primary schools through college.   higher education became available in all major cities.

He established a national bank of France that helped in regulating the economy on a national level. Many internal improvements, e.g., military roads, bridges, canal building and beautification of Paris took place under Napoleon's consulate.