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French Revolution

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The French Revolution was the period in the late 18th century when the French monarchy was overthrown and supplanted by a republic.



In the 1780s, a series of bad harvests and an inadequate transportation system had led to food shortages and rising bread prices in France. Furthermore, the state's financial resources had been exhausted by long and expensive wars against Britain, especially the American Revolutionary War. King Louis XVI's ministers of finance felt a tax reform, reducing the privileges of the nobility and the clergy, was necessary to avoid defaulting on the state debt, but attempts at such a reform were thwarted by the nobility-dominated parliaments, which held limited veto powers.

Assembly of Notables

In 1787, Louis called an Assembly of Notables, a non-elected advisory body, in hopes of having it support his tax plans and increasing pressure on the parliaments. Instead, the Assembly opposed tax reform and advocated calling the Estates-General, an elected advisory body consisting of the three estates. Traditionally, each estate (clergy, nobility, and commons) had had one vote, with any two overriding the third.

Estates-General and National Assembly

But Parisian liberals argued that the number of members of the third estate should be doubled, with one vote per member instead of one vote per estate. The King agreed to the doubling of the membership, but left the decision on votes to the Estates-General themselves. The Estates-General convened in Versailles on 5 May 1789. By mid-June, the third estate had declared itself the National Assembly. On 20 June, its delegates swore the Tennis Court Oath not to separate until they had given the kingdom a constitution. They were joined by the majority of the clergy and 47 of the noble delegates.

The King began to mass troops near Paris and Versailles and, under pressure from conservative members of his privy council, dismissed his minister of finance. This was seen as an attack on the National Assembly, and rioting broke out in Paris. On 14 July, the insurgents attacked the Bastille, a prison and fortress in Paris that served as a symbol of the Ancien Régime. A mob stormed the Bastille, killed its governor, and proceeded to kill the mayor of Paris for suspected treason. Louis XVI gave in, made General Lafayette, a prominent liberal member of the Assembly, the new commander of the National Guard, and upon a visit to Paris accepted a tricolour cockade as symbol of his support for the Assembly. Still, unrest and lawlessness spread throughout France.

During August, the Assembly, now calling itself the National Constituent Assembly, abolished feudalism and the tithe supporting the Catholic Church, and on 26 August issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. By October, the King was forced to relocate the court to Paris.

Throughout 1790 the Assembly continued work on a new constitution, which would still include the King as a hereditary monarch, although with strongly diminished powers. On 20 June 1791, Louis XVI, who opposed the revolution but did not accept the offers of aid by foreign monarchs, tried to flee Paris with his family for the safety of his army. They were discovered, brought back to Paris, and put under guard. He was still made head of a constitutional monarchy when the constitution was finalized in September 1791. The National Constituent Assembly was replaced by a new Legislative Assembly, which met for the first time on 1 October 1791.

National Convention and Reign of Terror

The Legislative Assembly failed in restoring order or in addressing the fiscal problems. By 1792, the inhabitants of Paris had radicalized, and on 10 August 1792, a mob stormed the royal palace. By September 1792, a new Convention had been called to create another Constitution, and it abolished monarchy on 21 September 1792, declaring France a republic. When foreign powers including Austria and Prussia declared King Louis XVI's cause their own and prepared to send troops into France to suppress the revolution and restore Louis, France found itself faced with a major war. In France Louis was seen as conspiring with foreign interests against the new government; on 21 January 1793 he was executed for treason.

When early military successes brought the Austrian Netherlands under French control, the conflict spread to include Britain and the Dutch Republic. The King's execution angered the other European monarchs, and Spain and most smaller European powers joined the anti-French alliance. Advances of the allied troops coincided with anti-revolutionary uprisings, and most of the early gains were lost in the spring of 1793.

Meanwhile, French politics had radicalized even further, and the Jacobin faction had taken control of the government. The Committee of Public Safety unleashed the Reign of Terror in an attempt to quash internal opposition; between 16,000 and 40,000 people were killed for alleged counter-revolutionary activities.

In 1794 the French armies were resurgent. Strengthened by the levée en masse, universal conscription, they defeated the allies at the Battle of Fleurus and conquered not only the Austrian Netherlands but also the Dutch Republic, expelling the House of Orange and forming a pro-French satellite state, the Batavian Republic.

The Reign of Terror came to an end when on 22 July 1794 Maximilien Robespierre, head of the Committee of Public Safety, was arrested and himself executed. A new constitution was ratified in September, under which power was transferred to a Directory and a new bicameral legislature.


The Directory suffered from corruption, financial mismanagement and maladministration. The revolutionary war had increased the power of the military because France relied on foreign tribute and was simultaneously unable to re-integrate the soldiers into civilian economy if the war were to end. Besides, the army was needed to suppress counter-revolutionary uprisings in France itself. On 9 November 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup d'état which replaced the Directory with a Consulate, with Napoleon as one of three Consuls. By early 1800 Napoleon became First Consul, and by 1804, Emperor. Napoleon's rise to supreme power is recognized as the end of the French revolution.

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