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French Revolution

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The French Revolution comprises a period in the History of France, covering the years 1789-1799, in which the monarchy was overthrown and radical restructing was forced upon the Roman Catholic Church.

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France in 1789 was still one of the richest and most powerful nations in Eruope. Other than Britian and the Netherlands the French people had more freedom and less of a chance of arbitrary punishment than in any other nation in Europe. The King of France, Louis XVI was overthrown in a popular rebellion[?], caused by a variety of reasons:

  • the absolutist system of government
  • rampant discourse on enlightenment ideals
  • an unmanagable debt
  • the system of taxation
  • food scarcity


The French system of absolute monarchy which mingled with a large and growing middle class that had absorbed the ideology of equality and freedom of the individual brought about by such philosophes[?] as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other theorists of the Enlightenment. They atacked the undemocratic nature of the government, pushed for freedom of speech, challenged the Catholic Church, and the perogatives of the nobles. There was virtually no representation for the lower and middle classes in government the French parliament (Estates-General) had not met since 1614;



This was compounded by the long running fiscal crisis of the French government. Eaxtravagent expenditures by Louis XIV on luxuries such as Versailles were compounded by hevay expenditures on the Seven Years War and the American War of Indepedence[?]. This put France deeply into debt, Britain to had a great of debt from these conflicts, but Britian had a far more advance fiscal structure to deal with it. There was no counterpart to the Bank of England in France in 1789 and there was also far less ready capital in France as it was nearly as much a trading nation as was Britain.


Unlike the trading nation France could not rely almost solely on tarriffs to generate income. While average tax rates were higher in Britain the burden on the people was greater in France. Taxation relied on a system of internal tarriffs seperating the regions of France, this prevented a unified market from developing in teh country. Taxes such as the extremmlly unpopular gabelle[?] were contracted out to private collectors who were permited to raise far more than the government requested. These systems lead to an arbitrary and unequal collection of many of France's consumption taxes.

The system also excluded the nobles and the clergy from having to pay taxes. The tax burden was thus paid by the peasants and the professional and business classes. These groups were also cut off from most positions of power in the regime.

Other Causes


These probems were compounded by the remants of feudalism which gave nobles a number of rights, such as large hunting preserves, that annoyed the rest of the population.

American Influence

France had played a deciding role in the American Revolutionary War sending its navy and troops to aid the reolvitng colonists. During this time there was much contact between the Americans and the French and revolutionary ideals spread between the groups.

Food Scarcity

These problems were all compounded by a great scarcity of food in the 1780s. Different crop failures in the 1780s caused these shortages, which of course led to high prices for bread. Perhaps no cause more motivated the Paris mob that was the engine of the revolution more than the shortage of bread. The poor conditions on the coutnryside had forced rural residents to move into Paris and the city was overcrowded and filled with the hungry and disaffected. The peasants sufferred doubly from the economic and agricultural problems.


During the reigns of Louis XV and Louis XVI different ministers tried to tax the nobles. Such measures encoutered much resistance from the parliaments (law courts), which the nobility dominated. When in 1788 all attempts had failed, King Louis XVI decided to summon a meeting of the Estates-General, the first since 1614, which he scheduled for May 1789. The King tried to make the Estates meet in a modern way but the parliaments decided that the Estates-General would meet in the same way as it met in 1614: in different chambers for every class. But society had changed. The bourgeoisie had grown in the last 200 years and money lay in their hands. Now they had the chance to seize the power they wanted to have.

Right from the beginning the Estates-General were divided about what to do. Instead of discussing the taxes of the king, they began to discuss the way in which decisions should be made. The Third Estate wanted the Estates to meet as one body and vote per person, not per class. When the King doubtfully rejected this idea, the members of the Third Estate declared themselves the National Assembly, the true representatives of the people. They swore that they wouldn't disperse until France had a new constitution.

Under the influence of conservative nobles the king decided to send troops to Versailles to disperse the Assembly. The people saw this as a provocation and the poor labourers of Paris attacked the Bastille.

The storming of the Bastille prison on July 14th, 1789, is commemorated today as Bastille Day. Although only seven prisoners were released -- four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender -- it became a potent symbol of all that was hated of the ancien régime. After this violent act nobles started to flee the country.

In August the Assembly abolished feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and in 1790 the church lands were confiscated and new paper money was introduced. The paper money caused high inflation. The King tried to flee in June 1791 to join the nobles in exile, but his flight to Varennes did not succeed. He reluctantly accepted the new constitution in September 1791, which made France a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with the elected National Assembly.

New factions emerged such as the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists), Girondins (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries). The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins wanted to to wage war. The King wanted war to become popular or be defeated: both actions would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution through Europe. France declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia started participating on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The French Revolutionary Wars had begun.

The fighting went badly and prices rose sky-high. In August 1792 a mob assaulted the Royal Palace in Paris and arrested the King. On September 21, 1792 monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. The French Revolutionary Calendar commenced.

The legislative power in the new republic was vested in the National Convention, while the executive power was vested in the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins became the most influential party in the Convention and on the Committee.

On January 21, 1793 King Louis was executed with a Convention majority of 361 to 360 (only 1 vote!). The execution caused more wars with European countries.

When war went badly prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted and counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This caused the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup. The Committee of Public Security came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror. Thousands of innocent people found the death under the guillotine after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. In 1794 Robespierre had ultraradicals and moderate Jacobins executed, so eliminating popular support. On July 27, 1794 Robespierre was deposed by moderate Convention members and executed the next day.

In 1795 a new constitution was drafted, which installed the Directoire. The executive power became vested in five directors who were annually appointed by a bicameral parliament (500 representatives and 250 senators). The new regime met with opposition from remaining Jacobins and royalists. Riots and counter-revolutionary activities were supressed by the army. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte gained much power.

On November 9, 1799 Napoleon staged a coup which led to his dictatorship and eventually to his proclamation as emperor, which brought the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution to a close.

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