French Revolution


In 1774, Louis XVI of the Bourbon family of kings ascended the throne of France. He was 20 years old and married to the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette. Upon his accession the new king found an empty treasury. Long years of war had drained the financial resources of France. Added to this was the cost of maintaining an extravagant court at the immense palace of Versailles. Under Louis XVI, France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain. The war added more than a billion livres to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion livres. Lenders who gave the state credit, now began to charge 10 per cent interest on loans. So the French government was obliged to spend an increasing percentage of its budget on interest payments alone. To meet its regular expenses, such as the cost of maintaining an army, the court, running government offices or universities, the state was forced to increase taxes. Yet even this measure would not have sufficed. French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates, and only members of the third estate paid taxes. The society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the middle ages.

The term Old Regime is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789.

Old Regime

In the 1770s, the system of feudalism left over from the Middle Ages—called the Old Regime—remained in place. The people of France were still divided into three large social classes, or estates.

The Privileged Estates Two of the estates had privileges, including access to high offices and exemptions from paying taxes, that were not granted to the members of the third.The Roman Catholic Church, whose clergy formed the First Estate, owned 10 percent of the land in France. It provided education and relief services to the poor and contributed about 2 percent of its income to the government.

The Second Estate was made up of rich nobles, much of whose wealth was in land. Although they made up only 2 percent of the population, the nobles owned 20 percent of the land and paid almost no taxes. The majority of the clergy and the nobility scorned Enlightenment ideas as radical notions that threatened their status and power as privileged persons.

The Third Estate About 98 percent of the people belonged to the Third Estate. The three groups that made up this estate differed greatly in their economic conditions.

  • The first group—the bourgeoisie (BUR•zhwah•ZEE)were merchants and artisans. They were well-educated and believed strongly in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty and equality. Although some of the bourgeoisie were as rich as nobles, they paid high taxes and lacked privileges like the other members of the Third Estate. Many felt that their wealth entitled them to a greater degree of social status and political power.
  • The workers of France’s cities—cooks, servants, and others—formed the second group within the Third Estate, a group poorer than the bourgeoisie. Paid low wages and frequently out of work, they often went hungry. If the cost of bread rose, mobs of these workers might attack carts of grain and bread to steal what they needed.
  • Peasants formed the largest group within the Third Estate—more than 80 percent of France’s 26 million people. Peasants paid about half their income in dues to nobles, tithes to the church, and taxes to the king’s agents. They even paid taxes on such basic staples as salt. Peasants joined the urban poor in resenting the clergy and the nobles for their privileges and special The heavily taxed and discontented Third Estate was eager for change.

The Forces of Change:

In addition to the growing resentment of the lower classes, other factors were contributing to the revolutionary mood in France.

Enlightenment Ideas: New views about power and authority in government were spreading among the Third Estate. The people began questioning long-standing notions about the structure of society and using words like equality, liberty, and democracy. The success of the American Revolution inspired them, and they discussed the radical ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire.

EconomicWoes: France’s Once Prosperous economy was failing.The Population Is expanding rapidly, as were trade and production. However, the heavy burden of taxes made it impossible to conduct business profitably within France. The cost of living rose for everyone. In addition, bad weather in the 1780s caused widespread crop failures, resulting in a severe shortage of grain. The price of bread doubled in 1789, and many people faced starvation.

During this period, France’s government sank deeply into debt. Extravagant spending by the King and Queen was part of the problem. Louis XVI, who became king in 1774, inherited part of the debt from his predecessors. He also borrowed heavily in order to help the American revolutionaries in their war against Great Britain—France’s chief rival—thereby nearly doubling the government’s debt. When bankers, in 1786, refused to lend the government any more money, Louis faced serious problems.

A Weak Leader Strong leadership might have prevented the coming crisis, but Louis XVI was indecisive and allowed matters to drift. He paid little attention to his government advisers, preferring to spend his time hunting or tinkering with locks rather than attending to the details of governing.

Louis had married his wife,Marie Antoinette,when he was 15 and she was 14. Because Marie was a member of the royal family of Austria, France’s long-time enemy, she became unpopular as soon as she set foot in France. As queen, Marie spent so much money on gowns, jewels, and gifts that she became known as Madame Deficit.

The population of France rose from about 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789. This led to a rapid increase in the demand for foodgrains. Production of grains could not keep pace with the demand. So the price of bread which was the staple diet of the majority rose rapidly. Most workers were employed as labourers in workshops whose owners fixed their wages. But wages did not keep pace with the rise in prices. So the gap between the poor and the rich widened. Things became worse whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest.

End to privileges:

In addition to merchants and manufacturers, the third estate included professions such as lawyers or administrative officials. All of these were educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth. Rather, a person’s social position must depend on his merit. These ideas envisaging a society based on freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all, were put forward by philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke sought to refute the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch. Rousseau carried the idea forward, proposing a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives.

In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu proposed a division of power within the government between the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. This model of government was put into force in the USA, after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain. These ideas spread among the French intellectuals and also common man. The news that Louis XVI planned to impose further taxes to be able to meet the expenses of the state generated anger and protest against the system of privileges.

Revolution breaks out:

In France of the Old Regime the monarch did not have the power to impose taxes according to his will alone. Rather he had to call a meeting of the Estates General which would then pass his proposals for new taxes. The Estates General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives. However, the monarch alone could decide when to call a meeting of this body.

The last time it was done was in 1614. On 5 May 1789, Louis XVI called together an assembly of the Estates General to pass proposals for new taxes. A resplendent hall in Versailles was prepared to host the delegates. The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides, while the 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back. The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members. Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly. However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters which the representatives had brought with them. Voting in the Estates General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote.

The clergy and the nobles had dominated the Estates-General throughout the Middle Ages and expected to do so in the 1789 meeting. Under the assembly’s medieval rules, each estate’s delegates met in a separate hall to vote, and each estate had one vote. The two privileged estates could always outvote the Third Estate.

This time too Louis XVI was determined to continue the same practice. But members of the third estate demanded that voting now be conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote. This was one of the democratic principles put forward by philosophers like Rousseau in his book The Social Contract. When the king rejected this proposal, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.

The National Assembly: The Third Estate delegates, mostly members of the bourgeoisie whose views had been shaped by the Enlightenment, were eager to make changes in the government. They insisted that all three estates meet together and that each delegate have a vote. This would give the advantage to the Third Estate, which had as many delegates as the other two estates combined.

The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole French nation. On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles. They declared themselves a National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch. A leading spokesperson for their viewpoint was a clergy- man sympathetic to their cause, the Abbé Sieyès (AB•AY syay•YEHS), who argued, “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been up to now in the political order? Nothing. What does it demand? To become something herein.” In a dramatic speech, he suggested that the Third Estate delegates name themselves the National Assembly and pass laws and reforms in the name of the French people.

After a long night of excited debate, the delegates of the Third Estate agreed to Sieyès’s idea by an overwhelming majority. On June 17, 1789, they voted to establish the National Assembly, in effect proclaiming the end of absolute monarchy and the beginning of representative government. This vote was the first deliberate act of revolution.

Three days later, the Third Estate delegates found themselves locked out of their meeting room. They broke down a door to an indoor tennis court, pledging to stay until they had drawn up a new constitution. Their pledge was called the Tennis Court Oath.

While the National Assembly was busy at Versailles drafting a constitution, the rest of France seethed with turmoil. After spending hours in long queues at the bakery, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops. At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris. On 14 July, the agitated crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille.

Storming the Bastille : Louis tried to make peace with the Third Estate by yielding to the National Assembly’s demands. He ordered the nobles and the clergy to join the Third Estate in the National Assembly. At the same time, sensing trouble, the king stationed his mercenary army of Swiss guards in Paris, since he no longer trusted the loyalty of the French soldiers.In Paris, rumors flew that foreign troops were coming to massacre French citizens. People gathered weapons in order to defend Paris against the king’s foreign troops. On July 14, a mob tried to get gunpowder from the Bastille, a Paris prison. The angry crowd overwhelmed the king’s soldiers, and the Bastille fell into the control of the citizens. The fall of the Bastille became a great symbolic act of revolution to the French people .Ever since, July 14 has been a French national holiday, similar to the U.S. Fourth of July.(Fall of Bastille)

Great Fear sweeps France:

Before long, rebellion spreads from Paris into the countryside. From one village to the next, wild rumors circulated that the nobles were hiring outlaws to terrorize the peasants.A wave of senseless panic called the Great Fear rolled through France. When the peasants met no enemy bandits, they became outlaws themselves. Waving pitchforks and torches, they broke into nobles’ manor houses, tore up the old legal papers that bound them to pay feudal dues, and in some cases burned the manor houses as well.

In October 1789, approximately 6,000 Parisian women rioted over the rising price of bread. Their anger quickly turned against the king and queen. Seizing knives and axes, the women and a great many men marched on Versailles. They broke into the palace and killed two guards. The women demanded that Louis and Marie Antoinette come to Paris. Finally, the king agreed to take his wife and children to Paris.

Three hours later the king, his family, and servants left Versailles, never again to see their magnificent palace. Their exit signaled the change of power and radical reforms about to overtake France .

The Assembly Reforms France

Throughout the night of August 4, 1789, noblemen made grand speeches, declaring their love of liberty and equality. Although motivated more by fear than by idealism, they joined other members of the National Assembly in sweeping away the feudal privileges of the First Estate and the Second Estate, thus making commoners and peasants equal to the nobles and the clergy. By morning, the Old Regime was dead.

The Rights of Man : Three weeks later, on August 27, the National Assembly adopted a statement of revolutionary ideals called “A Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” commonly known as the Declaration of the Rights of Man. Reflecting the influence of Enlightenment ideas and of the Declaration of Independence, the document stated that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights” and that “the aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural . . . rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.” Other articles of the famous document guaranteed citizens equal justice, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion. As the French people embraced the principles of the declaration, the expression “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” became the slogan of the Revolution.

However, the Declaration of the Rights of Man did not apply to women. When Olympe de Gouges (aw•LAMP duh GOOZH) wrote a declaration of the rights of women, not only were her ideas rejected, but she eventually lost her head as an enemy of the Revolution.

A State-Controlled Church During 1790, many of the National Assembly’s reforms focused on the relationship between church and state. The assembly took over church lands and declared that church officials and priests were to be elected by property owners and paid as state officials. Thus, the Catholic Church lost both its lands and its political independence. The reasons for the assembly’s actions were economic. The delegates hesitated to further tax the bourgeoisie, who were strong supporters of the Revolution. However, the delegates were willing to sell church lands to help pay off France’s large debt.

The assembly’s actions alarmed millions of devout French peasants, who rallied to the support of their parish priests. Many French peasants, like their priests, were conservative Catholics. Although the assembly’s move to make the church a part of the state was in accord with Enlightenment philosophy, it offended such Catholics, who believed that the pope should rule over a church independent of the state.

These changes in the church drove a wedge between the peasants and the bourgeoisie. From this time on, the peasants often opposed further revolutionary changes.

Louis Tries to Escape: As the National Assembly restructured the relationship between church and state, Louis XVI pondered his fate as a monarch. Some of the king’s advisers warned Louis that he and his family were in danger. Many supporters of the monarchy thought France unsafe and left the country. Then, in June 1791, Louis and his family tried to escape from France to the Austrian Netherlands. As they neared the French border, however, a postmaster recognized the king from his portrait on some paper money. The royal family was returned to Paris under guard. By his attempted escape, Louis XVI had increased the influence of his radical enemies and sealed his own doom.

Conflicting Goals Cause Divisions

For two years, the National Assembly argued over a new constitution for France. By 1791, the delegates had made significant changes in France’s government and society.

A Limited Monarchy The National Assembly created a limited constitutional monarchy. The new constitution stripped the king of much of his authority and gave the Legislative Assembly the power to create French law. Although the king and his ministers would still hold the executive power to enforce laws, France’s assemblymen would be the lawmakers in the country.

In September 1791, the National Assembly completed its new constitution, which Louis reluctantly approved, and then handed over its power to a new assembly––the Legislative Assembly. This assembly had the power to create laws and to approve or prevent any war the king declared on other nations.

Factions Split France Despite the new government, old problems, such as food shortages and government debt, remained. Angry cries for more liberty, more equality, and more bread soon caused the Revolution’s leaders to turn against one another. The Legislative Assembly split into three general groups, each of which sat in a different part of the meeting hall.

French Revolution

Monarchy to Republic:

The situation in France continued to be tense during the following years. Although Louis XVI had signed the Constitution, he entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia. Rulers of other neighbouring countries too were worried by the developments in France and made plans to send troops to put down the events that had been taking place there since the summer of 1789. Before this could happen, the National Assembly voted in April 1792 to declare war against Prussia and Austria. Thousands of volunteers thronged from the provinces to join the army. They saw this as a war of the people against kings and aristocracies all over Europe. Among the patriotic songs they sang was the Marseillaise, composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle. It was sung for the first time by volunteers from Marseilles as they marched into Paris and so got its name. The Marseillaise is now the national anthem of France. The revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties to the people. While the men were away fighting at the front, women were left to cope with the tasks of earning a living and looking after their families. Large sections of the population were convinced that the revolution had to be carried further, as the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society.

Political clubs became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own forms of action. The most successful of these clubs was that of the Jacobins, which got its name from the former convent of St Jacob in Paris. Women too, who had been active throughout this period, formed their own clubs. Section 4 of this chapter will tell you more about their activities and demands. The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less prosperous sections of society. They included small shopkeepers, artisans such as shoemakers, pastry cooks, watch-makers, printers, as well as servants and daily-wage workers. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre. A large group among the Jacobins decided to start wearing long striped trousers similar to those worn by dock workers. This was to set themselves apart from the fashionable sections of society, especially nobles, who wore knee breeches. It was a way of proclaiming the end of the power wielded by the wearers of knee breeches. These Jacobins came to be known as the sans-culottes, literally meaning ‘those without knee breeches’. Sansculottes men wore in addition the red cap that symbolizes liberty. Women however were not allowed to do so. In the summer of 1792 the Jacobins planned an insurrection of a large number of Parisians who were angered by the short supplies and high prices of food. On the morning of August 10 they stormed the Palace of the Tuileries, massacred the king’s guards and held the king himself as hostage for several hours. Later the Assembly voted to imprison the royal family. Elections were held. From now on all men of 21 years and above, regardless of wealth, got the right to vote. The newly elected assembly was called the Convention. On 21 September 1792 it abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic. A republic is a form of government where the people elect the government including the head of the government. There is no hereditary monarchy. Louis XVI was sentenced to death by a court on the charge of treason. On 21 January 1793 he was executed publicly at the Place de la Concorde. The queen Marie Antoinette met with the same fate shortly after.

Reign of Terror:

The period from 1793 to 1794 is referred to as the Reign of Terror. Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and punishment. All those whom he saw as being ‘enemies’ of the republic – ex-nobles and clergy, members of other political parties, even members of his own party who did not agree with his methods – were arrested, imprisoned and then tried by a revolutionary tribunal. If the court found them ‘guilty’ they were guillotined. The guillotine is a device consisting of two poles and a blade with which a person is beheaded. It was named after Dr Guillotin who invented it. Robespierre’s government issued laws placing a maximum ceiling on wages and prices. Meat and bread were rationed. Peasants were forced to transport their grain to the cities and sell it at prices fixed by the government. The use of more expensive white flour was forbidden; all citizens were required to eat the pain d’égalité (equality bread), a loaf made of wholewheat. Equality was also sought to be practised through forms of speech and address. Instead of the traditional Monsieur (Sir) and Madame (Madam) all French men and women were henceforth Citoyen and Citoyenne (Citizen). Churches were shut down and their buildings converted into barracks or offices. Robespierre pursued his policies so relentlessly that even his supporters began to demand moderation. Finally, he was convicted by a court in July 1794, arrested and on the next day sent to the guillotine.

The fall of the Jacobin government allowed the wealthier middle classes to seize power. A new constitution was introduced which denied the vote to non-propertied sections of society. It provided for two elected legislative councils. These then appointed a Directory, an executive made up of five members. This was meant as a safeguard against the concentration of power in a one-man executive as under the Jacobins. However, the Directors often clashed with the legislative councils, who then sought to dismiss them. The political instability of the Directory paved the way for the rise of a military dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte. Through all these changes in the form of government, the ideals of freedom, of equality before the law and of fraternity remained inspiring ideals that motivated political movements in France and the rest of Europe during the following century.


In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. He set out to conquer neighbouring European countries, dispossessing dynasties and creating kingdoms where he placed members of his family. Napoleon saw his role as a moderniser of Europe. He introduced many laws such as the protection of private property and a uniform system of weights and measures provided by the decimal system. Initially, many saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom for the people. But soon the Napoleonic armies came to be viewed everywhere as an invading force. He was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Many of his measures that carried the revolutionary ideas of liberty and modern laws to other parts of Europe had an impact on people long after Napoleon had left. The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important legacy of the French Revolution. These spread from France to the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century, where feudal systems were abolished. Colonised peoples reworked the idea of freedom from bondage into their movements to create a sovereign nation state. Tipu Sultan and Rammohan Roy are two examples of individuals who responded to the ideas coming from revolutionary France.