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The French Revolution

In the 18th century, Europe was ruled by monarchs of various dynasties, and they wielded absolute powers. Along with the nobility and clergy they enjoyed hereditary privileges. In France the clergy and nobility did not pay taxes like the common people. It was in this context that the French Revolution occurred and stood for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

France in Eighteenth Century

The political and social system of France prior to the French Revolution was called ancien regime, meaning old order. Under the regime, everyone was a member of an estate. All rights and status flowed from three orders namely clergy, nobility and others, belonging to the T hird Estate. France was ruled by Louis XVI, a young king of the Bourbon dynasty. He was married to Mary Antoinette, the princess of Austria. The king had absolute power and he led a lavish lifestyle.

The government taxed the poor and not the rich. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette On 14 July 1789, the Paris mob, hungry due to a lack of food from poor harvests, upset at the conditions of their lives and annoyed with their king and government, stormed the Bastille fortress (a prison). The storming of the Bastille symbolised the beginning of a new age in the history of the world. There were many reasons for the outbreak of this revolution.

Conditions of Peasantry :

The peasantry made up the bulk of French society. The peasants were serfs. They had to work certain days in the week for their lords without any remuneration. They could not marry or dispose of their lands without the lord’s permission.

Lords claimed certain feudal dues such as the right to levy fees even for using ovens to bake bread, and a toll on sheep and cattle possessed by the peasants. It has been estimated that the peasant paid eighty percent of his earnings to various tax collectors. Carlyle wrote that ‘one third of them had nothing but third-rate potatoes to eat for one-third of the year.’

Three Estates

French society had three main divisions or estates: Clergy (the priestly class), Nobility (the landed and aristocratic class), and the rest, the commoners, formed the unprivileged class. The clergy and the nobility enjoyed special privileges and they were exempted from various taxes imposed by the monarchy.

Out of the three divisions, only the third estate bore the brunt of taxation, as other two estates were exempted from tax payment due to the special privileges. The important taxes were tithe, a tax exclusively collected by the church on the laity, Taille, a tax paid by the peasants, gabelle salt tax, and tax on tobacco. The peasants could not fight feudal regulations on their own. They looked for outside help and leadership.

The rising bourgeoisie wanted their political power to match their economic status. They wanted to have a voice in government. So the bourgeoisie took the lead and were instrumental in bringing about the French Revolution.

Financial Bankruptcy

France was in constant war with neighbouring British Empire that proved to be too costly for the exchequer. It had spent enormous sums on the Seven Years’ War with Britain and Prussia, and more again during the American war with Britain. The valuable assistance which the French gave to the American colonists was such as it could not really afford. The government had to pay high interests on the loan. In order to settles the dues, the government imposed more taxes on the common people.

The nobles and higher clergy hesitated to come forward and save the state by voluntarily giving up their claims to exemption from taxes. Matters were further complicated by the extravagance of the court and the incompetence of the Louis XVI.

Role of Intellectuals

Long before the revolution of 1789 there was a revolution in the realm of ideas. Public intellectuals (who were called philosophes in the French language) who were inspired by the Enlightenment ideal of applying reason to all spheres of knowledge played a key role in preparing the soil for the outbreak of the French Revolution. The writings of Voltaire and Rousseau acted as an impetus to the revolution.

Montesquieu (1689–1755), in his The Spirit of Laws, argued for the division of power among the legislative, executive and judiciary and opposed the concentration of power in a single hand. Voltaire (16941778), in his The Age of Louis XIV, opposed the religious superstitions of the French and criticised the French administration under the rule of the monarchs. Rousseau (1712–1778), in his Social Contract, argued that the relationship between the rulers and ruled should be bound by a contract. If the ruler ruled the country in a just manner, he would be respected by his subjects. If he ruled in an unjust manner, in violation of the contract, he should be punished. The English philosopher, John Locke, in ‘Two Treatises of Government’, opposed the divine right and absolute monarchy. These ideas were also expressed in the writings of Diderot and the Encyclopaedists.

The French Revolution

T he Beginning

Montesquieu The French Revolution began with the meeting of the Estates-General in May 1789. The summoning of the Estates-General became necessary because of the financial problems faced by the government. The first two estates, namely, the clergy and nobility had sent 300 representatives each to the meeting held at the palace of Versailles, while the 600 delegates of the third estate, mainly the business people and educated members, were made to stand behind them. The question that was taken up at the Estates General was how they would vote. According to the norm each estate had one vote and Louis XVI wanted the same arrangement to continue. However, the third estate wanted one vote for each member.

Tennis Court Oath

When this demand by the third estate was not accepted, the representatives formed the National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Then they left the Estates General and assembled at the tennis court on 20 June 1789. They took the ‘tennis court oath’ by which they wanted to limit the power of the monarch and introduce a new constitution. In this protest, they were led by a noble named Mirabeau and a clergy, Abbé Sieyès.

The Storming of the Bastille

When the representatives of the third estate were busy with the formation of the national assembly, the common people were suffering due to the high price of essential commodities, even as the rich merchants started hoarding the grains. The agitated women started storming into the market area. Seeing the unrest, the king ordered the army to move into the streets of Paris. Angered by this move, the people stormed the Bastille, the great prison of the city of Paris, and after destroying the fort released the prisoners on 14 July 1789.

National Assembly

T he fall of Bastille emboldened the National Assembly to abolish feudalism in the country. Shaken by the turn of events, the king also accepted the formation of a national assembly. T he Church was asked to forego its privileges and abolish the tithe. In 1791, the National Assembly drafted the constitution by which the powers of the king were limited. It also proposed to have three different organs: executive, legislative and judiciary. The members of the National Assembly were indirectly elected by a group of electors. The electors were voted by the male citizens, who were above 25 years of age and who paid taxes. Thus the majority of the citizens did not get voting rights.

Constitution Making

The National Constituent Assembly prepared the constitution. On 26 August 1789 the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was adopted. It subordinated the monarchy to the rule of law and defined individual and collective rights. It maintained that no person shall be accused, arrested or imprisoned except in those cases established by the law (clause 7); and insisted that taxation could only be raised by common consent (clause 14). Thomas Jefferson’s influence is clearly discernible in clause 1, which declares that, ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’. Women played a significant role in the French revolution. Women from the poorer areas of Paris marched on Versailles supported by 20,000 armed men. They broke into the palace and forced the king to return with them to Paris, where he was kept under public surveillance. Many women were politically active. Olympe de Gouges was dissatisfied with the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen, as it excluded women. She wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and of the Citizen, arguing for equality for women.

War against Austria and Prussia

While the king agreed to the constitutional monarchy on one hand, on the other he was secretly appealing for help from Austria and Prussia. The neighbouring kingdoms were watching the developments in France with concern. They feared that the rise of common people might bring to an end the rule of monarchs and so they sent their troops to France to contain the revolution. Meanwhile the National Assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia. On hearing this, people from various parts of France united to fight the foreign forces. A group of people from the place of Marseilles proceeded to Paris by singing the Marseillaise song.

Formation of Clubs

T he common people continued to suffer even after the formation of the National Assembly. Majority of the people saw the assembly as a place for rich persons as commoners were excluded from voting. The new armed power in Paris was in the hands of a National Guard recruited from the middle class. Lafayette, who acted as an official French adviser in the American War of Independence, was its chief. There was a general feeling of liberation and exaltation when the king, ex-aristocrats, the middle classes and the Parisian masses jointly commemorated the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille as a great festival. But this sense of unity did not last long. Dissatisfied people started forming political clubs to discuss the problems they faced. One such club which attained popularity was the Jacobin Club in Paris. The members were from poor sections of the society – small scale business people, artisans, servants and wage labourers. Their leader was Maximilian Robespierre. A majority of the members of the Jacobin club wore longstriped trousers as against the trousers with knee breeches usually worn by the noble class. In order to differentiate from them, they called themselves ‘the people without knee breaches’ (sans-culottes). Another lawyer Danton dominated the Cordelier Club.

Girondins and JacobinsGirondins and Jacobins

Lafayette’s constitutional monarchy dominated the political scene for two years. An attempt by the king to flee Paris in June 1791 to join counter-revolutionary armies congregating across the border was thwarted by the local militia. Yet food shortages, price rises and unemployment drove the artisans and traders as well as the labourers to the point of despair. Repression could not stop rising popular upsurge. T he moderates who ran the government fell out among themselves. Within the Jacobin Club a group called the Girondins, also known as the Brissotins (after one of their leaders, Brissot), were less radical than Robespierre and Danton. T hough there were differences of opinion among themselves, all of them excepting Robespierre, believed that a war against the foreign powers would help. Robespierre, however, argued that war would open the door to counter-revolution. But he could not stop the Girondins from agreeing with the king to form a government and then declaring war on Austria and Prussia in April 1792.

National Convention

T he plan of Girondins turned out to be a disaster. The enraged members of the Jacobin Club stormed into the palace of Tuileries, the official residence of Louis XVI, and ransacked it. They killed the guards and took the king as prisoner. A new assembly called Convention voted that the king should be imprisoned and a new election conducted to elect a leader for the country. In this election, every one above the age of 21 got the right to vote, without any distinction in wealth, and status.

September Massacres

After the overthrow of the monarchy, the people believed that political prisoners in the jails were planning to join a plot of the counterrevolutionaries. So the mob descended on the prisons and summarily executed those they believed to be royalists. Commencing on 2 September 1792, at Abbaye prison in Paris, it continued in the next four days in other prisons of the city.In all about 1,200 prisoners were killed in what came to be known as the September Massacres. T he September Massacres were publicised abroad as proof of the horrors of revolution. The Girondins blamed their more radical enemies, especially Marat, Danton and Robespierre.

Work of the National Convention

On 20 September 1792 the revolutionary army halted the invading forces at Valmy. T he next day the new Convention abolished monarchy and declared France a republic. King Louis XVI was brought before the People’s tribunal and executed by guillotine on 21 January 1793. The offence he committed was his appeal to foreigners for help against his own people. Soon afterwards Marie Antoinette was beheaded.

Against a background of growing hunger in the towns and countryside alike, there were demands from the Parisians to control prices, to maintain grain supplies to feed people and to take action against hoarders and speculators. Instead of initiating steps to meet the just demands of the Parisian masses, the Convention used the army to attack the agitating masses. The army suffered a series of defeats as its commander deserted to the enemy. Disillusioned peasants in the Vendee region in the west of France joined a monarchist rising. Finally moderates and royalists (29 May 1793) together seized control of Lyons, where silk industry was thriving and wealthy merchants from Germany and Italy had settled.

Rule of Jacobins

Robespierre did not want to lose the gains made in the previous four years and hence commenced his dictatorial rule. The Jacobins sent Girondin leaders to the guillotine, a beheading machine. Danton was beheaded. T he period between 1793 and 1794 was also a time of radical reforms. On 4 February 1794 the Jacobin-dominated Convention decreed the abolition of slavery in all French Lands. Robespierre imposed a maximum ceiling on the wages of the people. Food items such as bread and meat were rationed. Prices were fixed by the government for farm produces. The use of Sir and Madam was replaced by the use of the words male citizen and female citizen. Religious places such as churches were converted into army barracks. Angered over the radicalisation of the government and at the base of society, his own party members turned against Robespierre. He was convicted and finally executed in 1794.

The Directory

T he allies who had overthrown Robespierre did not stay long in power. Those who hated the revolution began to take over the streets of Paris, attacking anyone who tried to defend the revolutionary ideals. There were two risings in April and May 1795. But they were crushed by forces loyal to the new political group called T hermidorians.


began to return to the country and boast that the monarchy would be restored soon. Emigres: Persons who leave their own country in order to settle in another for political reasons. In the present context, the nobles who fled France in the years following the French Revolution came to be called émigrés.

In October 1795 the royalists staged a rising of their own in Paris. The army led by a rising officer and one-time Jacobin named Napoleon Bonaparte came to their assistance. Fearful of bloodshed, the Thermidorians agreed to concentrate power in the hands of a Directory of five men. In four years, under one pretext or another, Napoleon gained power. In 1799 Napoleon staged a coup which in effect gave him dictatorial power. In 1804 Napoleon made the Pope crown him as the Emperor of France. T he French revolutionaries may have been defeated, but much of the revolution’s heritage survived to shape the modern world.

Impact of French Revolution

The French revolution created a deep impact, not only in France but also all over Europe, and even inspired anticolonial intellectuals and movements across the world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The French revolution brought to an end the rule of Louis XVI in France. It reduced social inequality. The privileges given to certain sections of the society based on birth were curtailed.

It introduced a republican form of government with electoral rights. The feudal system was abolished Slavery was abolished though it took some more years for the total abolition of slavery The Church lost it supremacy and it became subordinate to the state.

Freedom of faith and religious tolerance had come to stay. The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizens brought to light the importance of personal and collective rights.

The three organs of the government, namely, the legislative, executive and judiciary became prominent, and kept a check and balance on each other.

It removed the concentration of power under a single authority. All over Europe, the French Revolution gave the hope to the people to end the despotic rule and establish an egalitarian society.

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