The French Revolution: 1789-1799

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Moderate Stage

1788 - Louis XVI called for the Estates General. By 1788 the Kingdom of France was utterly broke. Conflicts like the Seven Years War and the American Revolutionary War had been more than France could afford while the tax system was heavily outdated where the French nobility and the Catholic Church (who control most of the land and wealth despite being a tiny percentage of the population) paid virtually no taxes. The king's summoning of the Estates General for the first time since the 1600s was a possible way to raise new revenue and reform the financial system.

May 5, 1789Opening session of the Estates General. While King Louis summoned the Estates General for tax reform it soon became clear that the majority pushed for more radical reform. The First Estate represented clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate represented the remaining 98% of the population. During the opening session the members of the Third Estate (who represented the majority of the French population) made it clear that they had no love for the absolute monarchy and wanted a French constitution in addition to tax reform.

June 17, 1789The Third Estate broke away and forms National Assembly. The Third Estate consisted of Peasants and notables, even though they were the majority of the population and had twice as many total delegates as the other two estates. They also had only one vote in the Assembly and broke away because the other two estates kept on outvoting them despite representing the vast majority of the French population.

June 20, 1789The Oath of Tennis Court. When the King locked an increasingly vocal members of the Third Estate out of their meeting chambers the Estate instead chose to gather in a nearby tennis court. The members of the Assembly vowed not to disband until France had a constitution. This made it clear that the King would have to made concessions or risk a civil war.

July 14, 1789 - Storm of the Bastille. The Bastille was seen as a symbol of old monarchic tyranny and on July 11th the King dismissed his reformist minister of finance Jacques Necker, leading to fears that the King along with the nobility was moving to crush the National Assembly. The sans-culottes stormed Bastille in order to obtain weapons for the revolution.

July “August 1789A chain of peasant revolts known as the Great Fear. Peasants and villagers revolted against higher taxes, the local nobility, royal officials and the high price of bread. It is best described not as a single, national revolt but a series of revolts against local officials.

August 1789Nobles surrendered their special privileges. Nobles in France had an immunity from most taxes, the power to collect dues from local farmers, special status for the lands they owned, and other special privileges like exclusive hunting rights. These were all hated as it perpetuated a system where a small portion of the population was automatically seen as better for no reason other than birth. By August these privileges were stripped away and nobles were taxed as any other person living under the French monarchy.

August 26, 1789The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was published. The Old Regime meant the monarchy and aristocracy. It was called a death warrant because The Declaration of the Rights of Man declared that men are born free and sovereignty is residing in the nation. It also declared that all men were equal, peasants were no longer seen as lower than nobles or clergy and the King was now seen more as an executive, political leader as opposed to a divinely ordained absolute leader.

October 5, 1789March on Versailles. The poor women from the marketplaces of Paris marched on Versailles. They were anger rose from the rising prices of bread and the king's unwillingness to cooperate with the assembly but soon grew into a liberal demonstration demanding a monarch that answered to the people.

August 1789 - The National Assembly abolished tithe. Tithe was effectively a tax collected by the Catholic Church from local parishes. This meant that church was nearly a government of its own within royal France and it also meant that locals were often subject to a tax from the state, a tax from the nobles, and a tax from the church. This was hated and the church lost its ability to collect tithes at the same time nobles lost their privileges.

November 1789The National Assembly confiscated land belonging to the Catholic Church. 100,000 clergymen owned more than 10% of the land in France. This was seen as a symbol of tyranny where a tiny portion of the population had far too much land and power. The confiscation of Church land was a program of land reform to correct an imbalance of wealth.

July 12, 1790 - The Civil Constitution to the Clergy. The goal was to make the Church a national institution by making bishops and priest swear allegiance to the state. Because of the peasants who had catholic churches in their community were driven to revolt. Many people disliked the Church as a political institution with way too much power but many were also still very religious and didn't like the idea of God being restrained by some civil government.

June 21, 1791 - Louis XVI and his family fled Paris. King Louis and his family were stuck in Paris, still arguing over the future of the French state with the National Assembly. Still he was losing more support from the French population and was surrounded by a revolutionary city. His flight was not only for fear of his family's safety but the hope that he could link up with troops more loyal to the monarch than the national assembly outside of Paris.

August 27, 1791 - The monarchs of Prussia and Austria issued the Declaration of Pillnitz. A declaration in support of King Louis XVI against the revolutionaries. It led to a fear that Prussia and Austria would go to war to restore the power of the King and further alienated King Louis from the people of France who now accused him of plotting with foreign powers.

September 3, 1791France became a Constitutional Monarchy. France officially put a constitution into practice to limit the powers of the King. Louis XVI still technically headed the army and had the power to veto legislation but had his title changed from King of France to King of the French to show that he was king only with the support of the people.

Radical Stage

April 20, 1792 - The Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia. There was fear that the Declaration of Pillnitz was a declaration of war by Austria and Prussia (it was only a declaration of support for the King) and the Legislative Assembly hoped to attack preemptively to avoid being overwhelmed. The also hoped to united France by giving a common foreign enemy.

August 1792A combined Prussian and Austrian army led by the Duke of Brunswick invaded France. The initial attack by revolutionary France was repelled easily and the Duke of Brunswick launched a counter-invasion, making it clear that he intended to restore the monarchy and restore order to France. He warned the French population not to resist. The invasion was slowed by disease, poor organization, and bad weather.

August 1792Sans-culottes invaded the royal palace of Tuileries and forced the royal family to seek refuge at the Legislative Assembly. The invasion angered the revolutionaries who stormed the royal palace to overthrow the king who they believed was colluding with the Prussians and the French. The King fled to the Legislative Assembly for protection but was soon arrested.

September 1792September Massacres. A wave of killings in Paris, mostly among prisoners as revolutionary leaders thought that royalists and foreign armies would use the prisoners to fight against the revolution. The radical Jacobins and Maximilien Robespierre took control of revolutionary fervor and gained power.

September 22, 1792 - The National Convention established Republic. The Legislative Assembly was replaced by the more radical National Convention who formally abolished the French monarchy, replacing it with the French Republic. This was an incredibly radical move at the time.

January 21, 1793 - Louis XVI was executed. The French had repelled Austrian/Prussian troops by late 1792, removing any incentive to hold the King hostage. The National Convention had Louis XVI executed with a majority vote on the charge of treason against the state via guillotine.

1793 - 1794 - A chain of counterrevolutionary insurrections at the Vendee. Many peasants were just as wary of the new French government than they had been of the King. In the Vendee there was less of a power difference between local nobles and peasants while the revolutionary government was implementing new taxes, attacking their religion, and trying to draft them into the military.

June 2, 1793 - The Montagnards (Jacobins) expelled the Girondins from the National Convention and seized control of the Convention. This removed any moderate opposition from the reins of government. Robespierre and the Jacobins were now unchecked to implement their radical agenda and much of this agenda included the violent removal of any who opposed (or who they thought opposed) the Revolution.

Summer 1793-Summer 1794The Reign of Terror. Robespierre and the Jacobins were responsible for the terror. With foreign war and pro-royalist revolt among much of the population away from Paris there was a fear the French Republic would simply collapse under the strain. The Reign of Terror started as a way to remove enemies of the Republic, but it soon grew out of control and many in the National Convention turned against the Jacobins.

July 27, 1794Thermidorian Reaction (July was renamed into Thermidor) was a revolt against the excesses of the Revolution. Moderate members of the National Convention expelled the radicals from the Convention. Maximilien Robespierre was arrested and executed. This was the final end to the Jacobins as a relevant political force.

Final Stage

August 1795Directory was created. The Directory was created to replace the National Assembly but it had the problem of being composed of many monarchists, despite being a republican institution. They tried to prevent royalist and Jacobin coups while bringing an end to the fighting in the Vendee. Their attempts to please everybody eventually alienated everybody.

November 9, 1799Napoleon Bonaparte overthrew the Directory. Napoleon was already a popular military figure for his many victories in Italy in the past few years (he managed to shift the blame for his less successful Egypt invasion). By this time the French Republic has gone through the terror plus years of instability and war. The French population now wanted a stable government and a strong figure like Napoleon appealed to this desire.

Three most significant dates of the French Revolution:

  • Storming of Bastille (July 14th, 1789)
  • March on Versailles (October 5th, 1789)
  • Reign of Terror (September 1793-July 1794)

Robespierre and the Jacobins were responsible for the terror. With foreign war and pro-royalist revolt among much of the population away from Paris there was a fear the French Republic would simply collapse under the strain (Cole 485). The Reign of Terror started as a way to remove enemies of the Republic, but it soon grew out of control and many in the National Convention turned against the Jacobins. Thousands of people were killed due to this conflict between the Jacobins and Girondins. Afterwards, the leader of the Jacobins arose as the new head of the Revolution.

Characteristics of History Before 1989:

Before the French Revolution, French society looked very different. This society was known as the Old Regime. During the Old Regime, there were three Estates (classes) with the 1st, the clergy, and the second, the nobles, having all the power and privilege. Meanwhile, the 3rd Estate, the bourgeoisie, sans-culottes, and peasants, had to pay taxes to support the Clergy and Nobles, while having no power or privileges (Cole 479). Power flowed from above, and the vast majority of France, the third estate, had no say. Furthermore, France wasn't France as one would know it today. The Catholic Church was intimately linked with the monarchy. The clergy, was (like the nobility) exempt from taxation. Going even further, the Church had the power to tax from it's parishioners; this was called a tithe, and it was widely unpopular with the third estate. Before the French Revolution, one was not loyal to their nation, they were loyal to their king.

Characteristics of History After 1799:

Just before the French Revolution, ideas from thinkers of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a challenge to the traditional views of religion and monarchy. Free thinkers such as Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu, spread the idea that people should use reason, not faith when running a government. These notions, as well as Abbe Sieyes' political pamphlet, What is the Third Estate, inspired the Third Estate to take a stand against the corrupt system of the Estates (Brophy 291). The ideas of the enlightenment made the Third Estate realize that a person was loyal not to a leader, but to a nation, and it removed the idea that some people in French society were ""above"" others. Thus, they removed themselves from the Estates General to become the National Assembly. This changed the structure of power, instead of flowing from the top, it started at the bottom. The French Revolution removed the aristocracy and removed the idea that nobles should have privileges the everybody else did not. The people had the power and the French Revolution started that idea

This also removed the role of the Catholic church from its place of power. There was a saying ""France is the eldest daughter of the Church"". The King had absolute power, but he was seen as getting that power from God. The Church also owned a lot of land, and they were seen less as a holy organization and more as a large group that lorded over and stole form the people. When the French Revolution changed society, the clergy and the church in general were hated along with the aristocracy. Where the old monarchy was tied to the Church the new France rejected the Catholic church, they said religion should have no place in public affairs. This was made evident when the National Assembly confiscated the land of the church in November 1789. This gave rise to the concept of secularity, where even religious holidays were criticized. Right after the French Revolution, there was a serious effort to remove Sundays because Sunday is the Catholic day of rest. France went from being one of the closest nations to the Catholic Church to trying to get rid of Sundays.

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The French Revolution: 1789-1799. (2019, Jun 26). Retrieved July 23, 2024 , from

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