French Revolution (1789-1799): History, Reign of Terror, Outcome, & Facts
Although the turmoil began around 1787, the French Revolution went a notch up around 1789. It is for this reason why some historians give it another name, the Revolution of 1789.
The French Revolution stemmed from a number of particular factors, including increased calls from intellectuals for social and economic reforms, the 1788 crop failure and drought, depletion of French coffers as a result of her participation in the American Revolution, and increased discontent from the Third Estate over the gross inequality of political power between the elites and lower classes.
As a result of those peculiar causes, the French Revolution ranks up there as the most brutal and the most universally significant revolution in modern human history.
The French Revolution: What was it?
It was a period in France’s history that saw the common folks and masses overthrow the elites and monarchy and then take over the affairs of the country. The goal of the revolutionaries was to see the complete destruction of the centuries-old political and economic system of absolute monarchy and feudalism. The public executions (by guillotine) of King Louis and his wife Queen Marie Antoinette in so many ways signaled France’s readiness to completely do away with the monarchy.
Why did the French Revolution happen?
The French Revolution was caused by a myriad of political, economic and social factors. The most common reason had to be the country-wide dissent among the commoners over the French monarch’s deplorable economic policies that kept them [the commoners] at the bottom of the food chain for centuries.
Another reason had to do with the fact that French bourgeoisie and wealthy commoners were dismayed because their political power did not commensurately increase with their new found economic power. The bourgeoisie, which included the likes of successful professionals, traders, manufacturers and merchants, tried in vain to have a seat at the big table.
Also the political and economic landscape of France at the time was exacerbated by France’s support of American colonists during the American Revolution. Louis XVI and his predecessor had depleted France’s coffers by sinking a significant amount of resources to support American patriots’ victory over the British.
With France almost on the brink of bankruptcy, as well as the monarchy’s complete aloofness to the plight of the commoners, the bourgeoisies and commoners began to view the monarchy as an entity that was no longer needed. Amid all of that, the king road blocked moves by some of his advisors to introduce a tax reform that would have seen the nobility and elites carry some of the tax burden.
On top of all that bread prices kept skyrocketing, causing an even greater discontent among the peasants and commoners in major cities of France. Soon, there were rioting, looting, and striking across France.
Although the French Revolution did not perfectly achieve its goals, there were some significant outcomes of the people’s revolt. The following are some of the most notable outcomes of the French Revolution:
- A radical change in the social and economic structures of the country
- The end of feudalism in France
- France’s first written constitution
- The birth of a French Republic, representational democracy and enormous progress in property rights
- The 1793/94 Reign of Terror that saw several thousands of counterrevolutionaries arrested, imprisoned without trial, and guillotined
- Country-wide acceptance of that power was always going to stay in the hands of the people
- Ripple effects on other nations and how they are governed
- The removal of the French monarchy, including the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette
- France going to war with Prussia, Great Britain and Austria
- Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power
When did the French Revolution happen?
Historians estimate that the French Revolution spanned a period of about a decade, from 1789 to 1799. The actual date of commencement was on July 14, 1789 when the common folks broke into the Bastille (also known as The Storming of the Bastille), a local prison fortress to steal gunpowder. Fearing that the monarchy and royalist were getting prepared to clamp down on them, breaking into the Bastille enabled them to secure the necessary ammunitions to defend themselves.
Over the next 10 years France saw itself plunged into total anarchy as power moved from one faction of the revolutionaries to another. Ultimately, the carnage and wanton public executions subsided 1799 when General Napoleon Bonaparte took the reins of power by overthrowing the revolutionaries. Subsequently, Napoleon, who would later be crowned Emperor of France, founded the French Consulate.
What were the French Estates?
For centuries the French society was divided into a very defined social hierarchy that comprised three “Estates”. The First Estate in France was made up of religious leaders, i.e. the clergy; the Second Estate comprised the nobles; and the final and last Estate, the Third Estate, was composed of the commoners (i.e. the “average Joe” so to speak). Even though the Third Estate made up the majority of the French population [about 98%], they were the ones with hardly any political or economic power.
Moreover, the members of the Third Estate were the ones taxed the heaviest. The remaining two Estates – the Second and the First – fattened themselves and lived in luxury from the sweat and toil of the Third Estate. On a consistent basis, the clergy and nobility, although in the minority, outvoted the Third Estate. Hence the Third Estate in the Assembly began to agitate for equal representation and the removal of a system (i.e. voting by status and not by head) that allowed the other two estates to outvote them.
Sensing an impending catastrophe, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, King Louis XVI’s controller general, proposed a host of economic reforms that would see the clergy and nobility begin to pay some form of taxes, for example the universal land tax. Louis XVI called a meeting [to be held on May 5, 1789] of the Estates-General (les états généraux) – a body that was made up of the nobility, clergy and middle class. However, the nobility felt very reluctant to let go of their veto power and bear some burden of the proposed taxes. As a result, attention started moving away from those economic reforms proposed by the controller general to political reforms.
The National Assembly and the Tennis Court Oath
From all over France, representatives/deputies from the Third Estate proceeded to set up the National Assembly on June 17, 1789. Prior to that the representatives had appealed to the French monarchy and elites to allow for reforms in the political landscape that would see the abolishing of the veto rights held by the two other estates. When those appeals, and later demands, fell on deaf ears, the Third Estate made a solemn vow to keep on fighting until those constitutional reforms materialized. On June 20, 1789, they met in an indoor tennis court (Jeu de Paume) and then proceeded to take an oath – the Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume).
Chaos, the Great Fear, and the Storming of the Bastille
Not even Louis XVI’s decision to incorporate all three estates into one new assembly could douse the fire that had been lit by irate commoners demanding greater political and economic power. As at June 12, 1789, the French capital reeked of fear and uncertainty. Violence and sporadic looting and destruction followed shortly. Louis XVI’s royal power was increasingly threatened by the unfolding situation as fears of a military coup destabilized the king’s court. Historians term that period as the Great Fear (la Grande peur).
The last straw that seemed to break the centuries-old system’s back was undoubtedly the incident that happened on July 14, when an irate group of rioters broke into the Bastille, a highly fortified fortress that housed assorted weapons and gunpowder. And so the French Revolution began in full force. The violence and looting were infectious, spreading across the length and breadth of the country. Initially, the biggest victims were the tax collectors and landlords. Following the abolishing of feudalism by the National Constituent Assembly [on August 4, 1789], hordes of elites, who previously were feudal lords, had no option than to flee the country.
Did you know: Every July 14, France commemorates the Storming of the Bastille as a national holiday?
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen)
On August 26, 1789, members of the National Assembly gave a thumb up to the Declaration of Rights of man of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen). The members of the Assembly desired nothing than to end the ancien regime in order to replace it with a system that promoted equal opportunity, representative government and popular sovereignty. A bulk part of the declaration’s theme was influenced by the works of French Enlightenment philosophers and writers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The journey to getting a new constitution for France was far from an easy one. Members of the Assembly debated day and night over what the new government’s shape would look like. The issue of electing delegates also proved very thorny. Also there were questions about the clergy and its allegiance to the church in Rome.
The First written Constitution of France
It would take the assembly approximately two years to come out [on September 3, 1791] with a constitution – France’s first written constitution. About three months prior to that, King Louis XVI and his family had attempted to flee France; however, they were apprehended by the revolutionaries.
The constitution basically turned France into a constitutional monarchy, allowing the king to have royal veto powers as well as the power to appoint ministers. However, radical revolutionaries such as Georges Danton, Maximilien de Robespierre and Camille Desmoulins vehemently opposed the constitution. Those radicals wanted the complete abolishing of the French monarchy; thus, they argued in favor of a republican government. Additionally, they wanted the king to be charged and put on trial for crimes against his people and treason. The radicals believed that France had hit her lowest point and therefore it was open to the greatest change
The Revolutionaries and their government
The leaders of the commoners went on to topple the French monarchy and took the reins of power. Amidst the political turmoil, in-fighting among the revolutionaries caused a lot of bloodshed. The National Assembly swayed from the one political group to another. Also the National Assembly would go through several name changes; from the Legislative Assembly to the National Convention and then the Directory.
For example, the Legislative Assembly even declared war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792. It was alleged that the two countries were supporting anti-revolutionaries in France. Those countries tried as much as possible to restore the monarchy in France because they were afraid that revolutionary sentiments would spread into their countries and other parts of Europe. That same year, the radical political group known as the Jacobins stormed into the king’s palace in Paris and took the monarch prisoner. Louis XVI’s arrest on August 10, 1792 ushered in a period of never-before-seen violence in the streets of Paris; insurrectionists went on a rampage and killed thousands of people alleged to have ties with anti-revolutionaries.
Owing to all that violence, the Legislative Assembly made way for the National Convention. The new government quickly abolished the French monarchy and declared France a republic. It was during this time that Louis XVI was found guilty of high treason and crimes against his people. The king was then put to death by the guillotine on January 21, 1793. That same year, on October 16, the king’s wife, Marie Antoinette, was also executed on similar charges of treason.
The later revolutionary government, the Directory, would stay in power until Napoleon Bonaparte emerged onto the scene and took over the country.
Reign of Terror
The French Revolution was far from a smooth transfer of power from the monarchy to the people. It was rife with never-before-seen bloodshed, making it one of the most terrorizing revolutions in human history.
In the ten years that it spanned, the most horrible and unsettled period has got to be from 1793 to 1794, a period that historians like to call the Reign of Terror. Control of the country had changed hands a couple times before a radical French revolutionary called Maximilien Robespierre took charge of the National Convention, particularly the Committee of Public Safety and decided to implement his own version of the revolution. The radical group the Jacobins, of which Robespierre was a member of, sought to abolish Christianity in the country.
Robespierre encouraged the people to weed out every trace of opposition to the French government. In Robespierre’s eyes, anyone that criticized the government was by extension an opponent of the French Revolution. Under Robespierre’s the French people lived in constant fear as tyrannical laws were passed to stamp out dissent and opponents of Robespierre. Accusations of treason became the order of the day; arrests were rampant; and executions by the guillotine never seemed to end.
Marie Antoinette, the former French queen and wife of executed French King Louis XVI, was just one of the numerous thousands of people that met their end at the guillotine.
The Reign of Terror (la Terreur), which lasted for about 10 months, ended when Robespierre was guillotined [on July 28, 1794]. Governance of the country moved to a more moderate set of leaders.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power
With the National Convention made mostly of Girondins, a new constitution was approved. The constitution gave birth to the first bicameral parliament of the nation in August, 1795. A five-member Directory was put in charge of the executive duties of the country. It was also agreed that those members would be appointed by parliament.
With the help of a general called Napoleon Bonaparte, the National Convention was able to maintain order in the country even in spite of some protests from royalists and Jacobins against the new constitution.
In the four years that the Directory stayed in power, corruption and financial mismanagement was the order of the day. The government’s gross inefficiency caused a lot of discontent among French. The government increasingly turned to the French military and its generals, including Napoleon, to maintain peace and order in the country.
It was as a result of the government’s overreliance on the military that the young general Napoleon capitalized on and carried out a coup d’état. Napoleon quickly eliminated the Directory and appoint himself the leader of the executive, i.e. the first consul.