Revolutionary Era

The French Revolution: An Overview

When Louis XVI ascended to power in 1774, France was in the midst of a financial crisis caused by French involvement in multiple wars and by the ancien régime’s absolute control. The wars had left France with “a colossal debt which there was little prospect of diminishing, much less paying off.”1 In addition to mounting war debts, the wealthiest members of society, the clergy and the nobility, found ways to avoid paying taxes, leaving those of the least means overburdened by taxation.2

In 1778, France joined the American War of Independence further straining an already troubled financial situation. Jacques Necker, Louis XVI’s finance minister, attempted to fund participation through the use of loans instead of increasing taxes.3 Necker claimed this tactic to be a success, even “publishing the first ever public statement of the royal accounts” in 1781. However, as a Protestant, Necker’s true influence on the government was limited, and he was forced to resign having done very little to relieve France’s financial burdens.4

Calonne, appointed in 1783 as Necker’s replacement, “presented the king with a comprehensive plan of reform.” At the core of his 1786 financial plan was acceptance by a committee known as the Assembly of Notables, a group consisting predominately of high-ranking individuals. In 1787, the Assembly ultimately rejected Calonne’s reforms and even doubted the validity of the financial crisis. Following Calonne’s dismissal, the Assembly declared “themselves incompetent to sanction reform of any sort” and called for the convocation of the Estates General, “a national representative assembly.”5

Louis XVI, in response to the growing crisis, issued the May Edicts in 1788, attempting to strip “the parlements of their political power, their right to verify taxes and legislation.”6 By August, the Treasury had suspended payments, and the nation was in an uproar. Necker, on his return to office, set an official meeting of the Estates General for May 1789. When the Second Assembly of Notables convened in December, Necker pushed for and was granted a doubling of representatives from the Third Estate, defying the old order of 1614 which had called for an equal number of deputies from each of the three Estates. The public, however, continued to be dissatisfied, airing their grievances and expectations through cahiers.7

The meeting itself, convening at Versailles in early May, proved to be problematic from the start. “The great immediate issue, and what the Third Estate desired, was that all three orders should merge and sit as a single house,” promoting a majority vote where “the nobility and the clergy would cease to exist as separate chambers and could on occasion be outvoted.” The Third, its pleas being largely ignored, and the group eventually being locked out of the proceedings by the King, declared itself the National Assembly and vowed that it would not disband before a constitution had been drafted.8

In response to the growing public unrest, Louis XVI ordered troops to assemble at Versailles and Paris. Fears quickly escalated, and soon revolutionaries “were ransacking strongpoints in the city for arms, powder, and hoards of flour.” On July 14, with the aid of military deserters, they stormed the Bastille, the state prison, releasing the seven prisoners and forcing its surrender. As a symbol of royal power, “the spontaneous demolition of it which began at once was equally symbolic of the end of a discredited old order.”9 Meanwhile in the countryside, a “Great Fear” swept through the peasants who believed that gangs were “scouring the land to destroy crops and pillage helpless peasant communities.” The Assembly acted quickly to diffuse the situation by abolishing feudal dues, renouncing privileges, ending the venality of offices, equaling taxation, and depriving the Church of tithes.10

On August 26, the Assembly officially set down these rights in a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. In the following weeks, further reforms were added establishing France as a constitutional monarchy. New military arrivals in Versailles caused rumors of a counterrevolution, influencing thousands of women to march on the palace. After breaking into the Assembly hall and threatening the life of the queen, Marie-Antoinette, at the palace, they forced the royal family to move to Paris, thus imprisoning Louis XVI. In the days that followed, the Assembly also relocated to Paris and passed reforms nationalizing Church property and creating bonds known as assignats which could be used to purchase these lands in an attempt to cover public debt.11

Even greater religious reform followed in 1790 as “the Assembly proclaimed civil equality for Protestants” and created a civil constitution for the clergy, forcing them to take an oath of obedience. Caught up in the mounting hostility toward Catholicism, the royal family attempted to escape from Paris in 1791. Though the family was captured, increasing calls for the King to be dethroned led the Assembly to quickly finalize a constitution allowing for a return to “normal political life.” What was by then known as the National Constituent Assembly was dissolved, and the new Legislative Assembly took its place.12

Despite his limited powers and depleted military forces, Louis XVI declared war on Austria in the spring of 1792. With Prussia entering the war soon after, the Assembly moved to reinforce its army with volunteers. As these féderés entered Paris, the Prussian commander threatened the destruction of Paris should the King be harmed, thus sealing Louis XVI’s identity as an enemy of the Revolution. In August, the revolutionaries, known as sansculottes, and the féderés forced the suspension of the monarchy. By September, a new body, the Convention, was formed to set up the new Republic and to oversee the trial of the King. Louis XVI was found to be guilty, sentenced to death, and sent to public execution on January 21, 1793.13

War continued to rage against the new Republic both internally and externally. The British, Dutch, Spanish, and Italians joined in the fight against France. In the Vendée, rebellion broke out, led by those who sought to restore Louis XVI’s heirs to power. The Convention itself was marred by strife, resulting in the purge of Girondins, whose condemnation of the Convention’s intimidation tactics had become distracting. Under the influence of the sansculottes, “the Convention declared terror the order of the day,” setting in motion a series of massacres and executions beginning in October with the Girondins and the hated queen, Marie-Antionette.14

The Reign of Terror continued virtually unchecked until no one felt truly safe from being accused of political crimes. Though the Convention had regained control over the nation through these tactics, most people suspected Robespierre of being the true leader. He was outlawed and executed in July 1794, bringing an end to the Great Terror.15 Still, problems persisted, and the following year saw the issue of a new constitution and the rise of a new leader.16

General Napoleon Bonaparte, after his success in dispersing a mass protest in Paris at the end of 1795, was given command to drive the Austrians out of Italy in April 1796. He succeeded and “on his own initiative concluded peace preliminaries at Leoben” in 1797, creating a French puppet state, the Cisalpine Republic, soon after. The Directory, a new rotating executive established by the 1795 constitution, saw Napoleon depart for Egypt in May 1798. By August, he was cut off by Horatio Nelson’s British fleet. Facing isolation in the midst of defeat, the Republic attempted to enforce conscription laws, but the crisis persisted. Sieyès, former leader of the original National Assembly, reemerged to mount a coup against the Directory in 1799, enlisting the help of the newly returned Napoleon. In November, a new authoritarian constitution granted Napoleon “practically limitless powers as First Consul of the Republic.”17

In 1800, Napoleon and General Moreau successfully defeated the Austrians. By 1802, the British also conceded defeat and signed the peace of Amiens, giving France a complete victory and ending the French revolutionary wars. Napoleon, basking in the glow of his success, crowned himself Emperor in 1804.18

The lasting impacts of the French Revolution have been as varied as the Revolution itself: “These conflicts were about principles and ideas which continued to clash throughout the nineteenth century.” As a product of the Enlightenment, “it set out to emancipate not just the French, but humanity as a whole.”19 Equal rights, balanced political representation, and religious freedoms are celebrated, but on the other hand, there still remains the question of how to justify the Reign of Terror and its many atrocities. As Doyle said, “[t]he ambition of the French Revolution was so comprehensive that almost anyone living since can find something there to admire as well as to deplore.”20 Therefore, the debate over its legacy continues.

[1] William Doyle, The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 20,

[2] Doyle, 25-26.

[3] R. R. Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 337.

[4] Doyle, 26-27.

[5] Doyle, 34-36.

[6] Palmer, 340.

[7] Doyle, 36-39.

[8] Palmer, 355-356.

[9] Doyle, 42.

[10] Doyle, 44.

[11] Doyle, 45-46.

[12] Doyle, 46-49.

[13] Doyle, 50-52.

[14] Doyle, 52-55.

[15] Doyle, 58.

[16] Doyle, 60-61.

[17] Doyle, 61-63.

[18] Doyle, 63-64.

[19] Doyle, 98-99.

[20] Doyle, 108.

* Featured image courtesy of Hervé Simon via Flickr