The French Revolution was a significant event in modern European history. It marked the beginning of the end of government by absolute monarchs, kings who claimed to rule by divine right. The causes of the French Revolution are many but can be traced to the monarchy’s severe debt problems, high taxes, poor harvests, and the influence of new political ideas arising from French philosophers and the American Revolution. Beginning as a movement pushing for moderate government reforms, the French Revolution rapidly turned radical and violent, leading to the abolition of the monarchy itself and the eventual execution of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The French Revolution would inspire other revolutionary movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Meeting of the Estates General
The Estates General met in May of 1789. It was reluctantly summoned by King Louis XVI to alleviate the monarchy’s serious financial debt. There were three classes represented by the Estates General: The nobles, the clergy, and the rest of the population, named the Third Estate. Each estate had only one vote. As a result the nobility and the clergy voting as a block could always overrule the majority Third Estate. Fearing they would be forced to bear the weight of the nation’s financial burden, members of the Third Estate decided to form their own National Assembly. When they were locked out of their meeting hall they moved to an indoor tennis court, where they were joined by some members of the other two estates. All present in the tennis court took an oath, vowing to remain there until a new constitution had been written for France.
Fall of the Bastille
On July 14, 1789, an angry crowd numbering in the hundreds marched on the Bastille Fortress. The Bastille’s main purpose was as a prison, housing mostly political prisoners. To many people in France, the Bastille was seen as a symbol of the monarchy’s despotism. Angry unemployed and hungry Parisians saw it as a place to vent their frustrations. Accompanying the mob were numerous soldiers who had abandoned their posts. The masses broke into the courtyard of the fortress, and then demanded that the bridge to the main building be lowered. The commander of the Bastille, the Marquis de Launay agreed to surrender on the condition that he and his troops be allowed to leave peacefully. His terms were refused but he soon ordered his men to lay down their arms. Launay and many of his troops heads were cut off and paraded triumphantly through the streets of Paris. After learning of the confrontation at the Bastille, King Louis XVI is reported to have asked an aide if it was a revolt. The aide replied, “No Sire, it is a revolution.”
March on Versailles
Many people in Paris and the rest of France remained hungry, unemployed, and restless. Poor harvests over the last few years had contributed to this situation. The King’s opulent palace at Versailles was regarded as a residence where the royal family and nobility lived in luxury, oblivious to the plight of the people. In October, a large crowd of thousands of protesters, mostly women, marched from Paris to Versailles. They broke into Queen Marie Antoinette’s quarters. As an Austrian, she was particularly despised. The crowd demanded bread and wanted to bring the King and his family back to Paris to “live among the people.” Louis conceded to their demands. He agreed to go to Paris with the mob, believing it would only be a temporary inconvenience. As they left Versailles the crowd chanted that it was “bringing back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the little baker’s apprentice!”
Flight to Varennes
The National Assembly continued the work of creating a constitution for France. After much debate, members of the Assembly decided to impose limits on the King’s authority. The King would have veto power but the National Assembly could overrule his veto. The restricting new rules appalled Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. They also felt like prisoners in their Tuileries palace in Paris. They decided to leave France and seek refuge in Austria, hoping to eventually be reinstated on the throne as absolute monarchs. Before leaving, Louis wrote a manifesto denouncing the Revolution. On June 20, 1791, the royal family and a small party of aides quietly left Paris. They managed to get within a few miles of the border before being recognized in the town of Varennes. They were forced to go back. The incident was devastating for the National Assembly. The King’s attempt to flee and his discovered manifesto came just as the new constitution was about to be implemented. Now they had to cope with a monarch who was against the constitution and increasingly unpopular with the people.
National Assembly Dissolved
Despite growing turmoil surrounding the King, the long awaited constitution of France came into effect with the formation of a constitutional monarchy on September 30, 1791. As part of this transition the National Assembly was dissolved and replaced with a new political body named the Legislative Assembly. It was significant that no members of the National Assembly were elected to the new government, as it was agreed upon that members of the National Assembly would not be allowed to hold office in the new parliament. The result was the loss of anyone with valuable political experience. The Legislative Assembly was composed of various diverse political factions. Members of the Assembly ranged from moderate royalists to radical republicans.
The issue of war dominated debate in the new government of the Legislative Assembly. Tensions with the rest of Europe continued to rise. Revolutionary France was viewed with both fear and anger by European monarchies, especially by Austria on the border. In France there was growing support for war. Louis XVI and hard line monarchists wanted war because they believed that foreign armies would easily overthrow the new government. Revolutionaries pushed for war because they thought it would unify the nation and help spread the ideas of the Revolution to the rest of Europe. On April 20, 1792, the King, backed by the support of a majority of the Legislative Assembly, declared war on Austria.
Attack on Tuileries Palace
Throughout the spring and summer of 1792, the situation of the French government became more desperate. After war was declared, Austrian armies and their Prussian allies started advancing into French territory. Economic stagnation continued throughout the country. The King was widely viewed as a traitor for trying to flee the country. The Legislative Assembly was divided and Paris was becoming increasingly radicalized. On August 10, a crowd of about 20,000 people, supported by the local government of the Paris Commune, attacked the Tuileries Palace. The King’s Swiss guards, numbering less than 1,000 soldiers, defended it. The majority of Swiss guards were massacred in the fighting. Meanwhile, the King and Queen had escaped the Palace and placed themselves under the protection of the Legislative Assembly. Fearing further violence, the Assembly placed them under arrest. The Revolution was moving into a more radical phase. Over the next month, hundreds of suspected royalists were executed in what became known as the “September Massacre”. Many French men and women, such as the moderate monarchist Marquis de Lafayette, fled for their lives.
Trial of Louis and Marie Antoinette
Following the arrests of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the Legislative Assembly disbanded and replaced itself with a new political body named the National Convention. The first act of the new government was to declare France a republic on September 21, 1792. Meanwhile the French military had halted the foreign invasion and were pushing back the Austrians and Prussians. Louis was charged with Treason. The trial took place within the National Convention. The former King’s defense was that it was illegal for the Convention to judge him. The prosecutors saw Louis as an enemy of the nation who must be punished. Any support left for Louis had dissolved with the royalist purge. The vote at the end of the trial was unanimous that Louis was guilty. The vote on the death penalty was much closer but still passed. On January 21, 1793, Louis was driven through the streets to a guillotine on a wooden platform and decapitated. Marie Antoinette had a short trial next. She was accused of numerous crimes, many of them based on rumors. On October 16 she too was found guilty and guillotined the same day.
Reign of Terror
The National Convention was dominated by the Committee of Public Safety. It was a small group of men that made executive decisions on behalf of the government. One man in particular, Maximilien Robespierre, came to dominate the Committee and led the infamous Reign of Terror. Robespierre wanted to rid France of all enemies of the Revolution and to protect the “virtue” of the nation. From September 1793 until July 1794 an estimated 16,000 people were guillotined. Many radicals were executed along with moderates. Most leaders of the French Revolution were now either dead or had fled the republic. Opposition to Robespierre grew both in the Committee of Public Safety and within the National Convention. The execution of popular radical Committee member George-Jacques Danton, and Robespierre’s self-appointed leadership of a new religion of the Supreme Being caused much resentment. On July 27, 1794, Robespierre was arrested. He was guillotined the following day.
The Directory and Napoleon
After the dramatic fall of Robespierre, the National Convention created a new constitution for France that was implemented in 1795. Leading the new government was the Directory. The Directory consisted of an executive council of five members. Almost from the start the Directory became mired in corruption, political conflict, financial problems, and dependence on the army for power. In 1799, a successful military commander named Napoleon Bonaparte, returned from a military expedition in Egypt and overthrew the Directory. Napoleon established what he called the Consulate, but just a few years later proclaimed himself Emperor of France. The Republic was gone. The country had returned to a new form of monarchy.