The French Revolution of 1789 is perhaps one of the most famous events of French history.
Many of the outcomes and consequences of the revolution have led to several key characteristics that define the political running of modern-day France as well as the values held by the French people.
The Revolution marked a key point in French and European history as France transformed from a kingdom to a republic ruled by its people.
But what are the circumstances which led to the beginning of the revolution? And what were the results of it?
Superprof is here to explain all you need to know about the French revolution and how it laid the foundations for modern-day France!
French Revolution Timeline
The French Revolution of 1789 occurred for a variety of reasons, one of the main ones being the fact that the majority of the French population was unhappy with the way the country was being run in terms of economics and politics.
Let’s take a look at a rough timeline of events which took placed before, during and after the French Revolution.
· A Difficult Financial Climate
A larger population and an economic boom meant that the 18th century was, for the most part, a period in which the French people enjoyed a higher standard of life than previously.
Unfortunately, this period of prosperity didn’t last long, and the end of the 1700’s saw a sharp downturn in the country’s economic stability as France’s leaders were faced with the debts accumulated whilst embroiled in various wars against the British in the American Revolution.
The reigning monarch at the time was King Louis XVI, who was to become the last monarch of France.
In an attempt to solve his nation’s financial issues, the King turned to his financial advisors, whose opinion he could not have disagreed with more: that the French taxation system should be reformed.
Louis was sure that there must have been another way for him to save his country from bankruptcy, so he sacked his advisors and turned to Charles de Calonne, his controller general, instead.
Calonne advised King Louis that in order to raise funds to pay off the national debt, the French nobility and clergy – two groups of people who were previously exempt from tax – should now be liable to pay it.
Once again, this advice was badly received by King Louis, but Calonne went ahead and tried to impose this new tax. As predicted, this did not go down well, and the aristocracy rejected Calonne’s demands.
As King Louis XVI and Calonne scratched their heads, the country was driven further into economic crisis. In addition to the financial hardship, there was a feeling of frustration present within every sector of society.
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· The Questioning of the Ancien Régime
While the aristocracy took offence at Calonne’s attempt to use their money to pay off the national debt, the rest of the population had already had enough of the way the country was being run.
Years of poor crops made food expensive and drove France’s peasantry (known as the Third Estate), which made up the vast majority of the population, further into poverty under the feudal system while wealthy landowners contributed little to the state.
In their confusion, King Louis XVI and Calonne arranged to meet with the Estates-General in 1789, a body representing the three sectors of French society, to discuss a solution: the clergy (First Estate), nobility (Second Estate) and the peasants (Third Estate).
During the time before the meeting, each estate put together lists of their issues which were to be raised with the King. For the Third Estate, one of these issues was representation in the assembly. Although they accounted for ninety-eight percent of the population, the vote of the Third Estate could still be overruled by that of the First or Second.
The importance of social status drove the call of political reform and set the scene for revolution, and the meeting did not go as the King has envisaged. Following the rejection of the Third Estate’s call for equal voting rights, they left the Estates-General and formed the National Assembly, which, given its popular advantage, was able to declare itself sovereign ruler of France.
· The National Assembly
The formation of the National Assembly was the first major step towards revolution, and once its members had taken the Tennis Court Oath, revolution was on the cards.
By taking the Tennis Court Oath, the National Assembly vowed to not disband until France had a new constitution. The Oath is so called because it took place on a tennis court near the palace of Versailles as the Assembly had been locked out of their usual meeting room there by King Louis XVI.
The National Assembly continued to meet at Versailles while it was drafting a new constitution, but while there was a feeling of hope among French citizens, the population was also fearful that the King would attempt to regain control by mobilising his troops.
This fear was addressed by acts of violence against symbols of the monarchy and power in the capital. The most notable attack, and the one which is believed to have signalled the beginning of the French Revolution was the storming of the Bastille.
· The Storming of the Bastille
The Bastille was a fortress which had been built to protect Paris during the Hundred Years War which was being used as a prison. It was seen as a symbol of the abuse of power of the French royal family and aristocrats, and, knowing that it housed arms, the disgruntled Parisians attacked it, taking cannons and gunpowder as well as setting the prisoners free.
The rebellious atmosphere also took hold of those outside of the city, and as the storming of the Bastille signalled the end of feudalism, rural peasants left their restrictive contracts and vandalised their landlords’ property.
France’s debt problem was eventually solved by nationalising the land owned by the Church.
Not only did this save France’s economy, but it also gave the lower-classes the chance to own property of their own.
The anti-feudalist fever which had swept the nation was put in writing with the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen. This Declaration was a document which inspired much of France’s post-revolution constitution.
The document stated that all French citizens would have equal rights regardless of social class as well as free speech. One of the most important parts of the Declaration was the article on the end of feudalism and tax immunity.
Several aspects of the Declaration of the Rights of the Man and of the Citizen can be seen in the French constitution of today.
However, although it seemed that the National Assembly was successfully implementing their ideas, new problems had come to light within the Assembly itself, when it came to addressing the controversial topic of the monarchy which left the National Assembly divided.
· Controversy Around the Role of the Monarchy
The groups of each side of the argument, the Girondins (who were in favour of giving the monarchy some constitutional power) and the Jacobins (who wanted to abolish the monarchy altogether and form a republic) were at loggerheads.
The first constitution reflected both sides of the argument, and the King was given the power to veto decisions made by the government.
A Legislative Assembly was elected to run the country, and war was soon declared on Prussia and Austria as the Assembly feared a counter-revolution by the noble Frenchmen who had fled there. While they were dealing with this potential threat, the Jacobins started a campaign of violence against the King.
This ended in the replacement of the Assembly by the newly-named National Convention. This was the government which abolished the French monarchy and ordered the execution of King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, his wife in 1793.
The monarchy has been abolished and the Jacobins had reached their goal, but the threat of a counter-revolution was too much for the Jacobin leader, Maximilien Robespierre, who condemned 15,000 people to death in what was known as the Reign of Terror.
Robespierre’s life was also brought to an end when the court ruled that his killing spree was no longer helping to secure the safety of France.
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How the Revolution Changed Modern-Day France
The French Revolution completely reshaped the country’s political and social landscape.
Signs of the Revolution of 1789 are everywhere in French life. For instance, the 14th July is a national holiday in France, known as Bastille Day, as it marks the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. French citizens celebrate the event which signalled the beginning of the French Revolution which made for a fairer society in which all men are born equal.
The French motto, too, has its origins in the French Revolution. The phrase ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality, fraternity) was first used in a public context by Maximilien Robespierre in 1790 and has become a prominent feature of French life in all aspects.
If you enjoyed this article, why not check out our blog on French military history?