History #16: The French Revolution

With the American revolution, we broke away from a monarchy and it worked out pretty well. Contrast that with the French revolution, where they weren’t just breaking away from a monarchy – they were overthrowing one. In the process, France experienced violence, bloodshed, war, and the rise of Napoleon. Though this might not have been the best result for France, the ideas of the French Revolution would spread through Europe and end up changing the world.

Setting the Stage

In 1789, France was in serious debt from the American Revolution and the Seven Years War. This shouldn’t have been to big of a problem for a wealthy country like France, but their society was structured in a way that the people with the money – the kings, nobles, and clergy – were exempt from paying any taxes. This just left taxing the poor who, along with having no money, were already dealing with a famine after hail storms ruined a harvest.

So we had a country were the poor were starving, while the nobles were living it up at Versailles and not paying any taxes. The “let them eat cake” world. There was also a third class of people – the intellectuals – who were engaged in the Enlightenment- a period of questioning the need for kings and clergy altogether.

To deal with the financial crisis, King Louis XVI called together a Convocation of the Estates General – basically a super parliament. It consisted of three estates: the first being the clergy, the second being the nobles, and the third being everyone else. The clergy and the nobles made up 2% of the French population, but they accounted for 2/3 of the representation on on the council.

As you may imagine, the third estate lost all the votes at the Convocation of the Estates General and weren’t very happy about it. They broke away from it in protest and formed the National Assembly of France. Louis XVI, master strategist, waited until they went on a break and then locked all the doors to the room they were meeting in. The third estate was just like ok, we’ll move to another room. They did, an indoor tennis court, and they swore the famous tennis court oath – a vow not to give up until a french constitution was established.

Around the same time, Louis XVI was sending troops to Paris to quell uprisings over the food shortages that plagued the city, but the revolutionaries saw this as an act of aggression – trying to suppress any movement for change. To prepare for any coming conflict with the king, the revolutionaries stormed the Bastille and took all the weapons they could find. So began the French Revolution.

The Revolution

Remember that during all of this, the people of France were still starving. A rumor got started that Marie Antoinette was hording grain at the Palace of Versailles, so a mob of armed peasant women stormed the palace and demanded the the King and Queen move to Paris, where they would basically be held under house arrest.

Nobles, seeing what was going on, attempted to flee the country. The King and Queen also thought that was a good idea so they dressed as peasants and tried to sneak out of Paris. They were caught and returned. Up until now, the National Assembly was trying to form a constitutional monarchy, but the escape attempt gave credence to a radical wing of the revolution called the Jacobins, who wanted to do away with the monarchy completely and establish a republic.

The Jacobins split away from the National Assembly and took up a position at the Champ de Mars in Paris. The National Assembly sent in troops to remove them and they fired into the crowd, killing 50 people. As with most revolutions in history, revolutionaries were now fighting revolutionaries. The conflict being how should change be implemented.

At the same time, other countries were starting to get nervous about what they were seeing in France. Maria Antoinette’s brother, the Holy Roman Emperor in Austria, declared, along with Prussia, that they would restore the French monarchy. After all, other monarchies in Europe didn’t want people to think it was easy to overthrow them.

After declaring war on Austria, the National Assembly realized the constitutional monarchy thing wasn’t going to work and suspended the monarchy. They figured you cant restore a monarchy without a monarch, so they put Louis XVI on trial and sentenced him to death. The National Assembly declared France a republic.

Reign of Terror

If you could kill the king, who couldn’t you kill? 1,600 nobles and enemies of the revolution were killed by roaming mobs led by Robespierre and the committee of public safety. Eventually, even Robespierre was killed by this uprising as distrust spread to every level of government.

While all of this was going on, the National Assembly had a knack of getting into more wars. When all was said and done, they were at War with 9 other countries including Britain and Spain. To stand a chance, the National Assembly issued the first military draft stating that every able bodied man must take up arms for their country. The noted that they would be fighting for themselves and not a king. This allowed France to raise the largest army in Europe.

The Rise of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte was making a name for himself during this time as a brilliant general. He was put in charge of the French forces in Italy, where he was extremely successful, leading to a peace treaty with Prussia and ending a lot of the conflicts. The only major front in the war that would be left was with Great Britain.

Facing a grueling battle with Britain, Napoleon naturally took his 20,000 troop army south to Egypt by way of the sea. The British sized the opportunity and destroyed Napoleons fleet of ships at the Battle of the Nile, leaving his army stranded in Africa. Eventually, Napoleon just abandoned his army to die and went back to France by himself.

Back in France, a series of coops took place that eventually left Napoleon in charge of the Government. France had gone from an absolute monarchy in 1789, through a period of massive bloodshed and war, back to basically an absolute monarchy in 1999 with Napoleon as the leader. Nobles and clergy returned to France.

Eventually, Napoleon fell and France restored the monarchy.


By the end of the French revolution, France did not have a republic nor a democracy but instead another monarchy. This could be seen as a failure, but the idea of the universality of rights (no slavery in this revolution) didn’t die. Monarchies began to give up power throughout Europe and the Enlightenment ideals of individual liberties spread. With the falling of Monarchies came the rise of nationalism and nation states.

In summary, the French Revolution marked the period when people rose up against an ancient social order and laid the groundwork for the social order we have today. Much in the same way the Protestant Reformation marked the end of Religious power in Europe, the French Revolution marked the end of Monarch power, even if France was left out of this progress.



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