- The French Revolution was an event that changed the course of history.
- It was a watershed moment in modern European history, and during this period French citizens uprooted old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system.
- The upheaval was caused by widespread discontent with the French monarchy and King Louis XVI’s poor economic policies, which led to his execution along with Queen Marie Antoinette.
The French Revolution started in 1789 and lasted until 1794.
Many historians think of the French Revolution as a turning point in history. The ideas from this revolution influenced the Declaration of Independence and the American Revolution.
What caused the French Revolution
The French Revolution had many causes. One of these was autocracy: an all-powerful king or queen, who had power because they believed they were given divine right.
Another cause was a bankruptcy and the economic problems the country faced, such as extravagant spending from the royals. In the 18th century, France had also spent a lot of money on the American Revolution and they also spent lots of money on King Louis XVI. This made them have less money to spend.
For two decades, there were many bad harvests, drought, cattle disease, and rising bread prices which made people feel desperate. They expressed this by rioting, looting, and striking against the government because it wouldn’t give them any relief.
Women were involved in the events that changed French society. They hoped that their involvement would pressure the government to introduce measures to improve their lives.
Most women of the third estate had to work for a living and worked as seamstresses or laundresses, sold flowers or fruits, or were employed as maids in houses of wealthier people. Nevertheless, these women did not have education or any training, which only daughters of noblemen did. Only aristocrats or wealthy women could get any education.
In 1789, King Louis XVI wanted to fix France’s problems. He called for the Estates-General. This group had representatives from different estates in France, like the clergy and nobility. The Third Estate formed into a National Assembly when they were mad at how the king treated them.
On June 17, the Third Estate changed their name to the National Assembly and invited all three estates to join them. The king tried to fight but failed. So he let them become the National Assembly.
Louis XVI’s power was taken away by angry people. They forced him to let the clergy and nobility join the National Assembly. The Oath showed that citizens opposed Louis XVI before he agreed to make concessions.
The Assembly was renamed the National Constituent Assembly. It then became a governing body. The National Assembly (sometimes called the Constituent Assembly) became the effective government of France after the storming of Bastille on July 14.
The number of delegates increased significantly during the election period but many deputies took their time arriving. The army and people with a military background were the Second Estate. The Third Estate was formed by men with legal professions, artisans, vendors, and the like.
French Revolution: The Bastille and la Grande Peur
On June 12, fear and violence were happening in Paris. The National Assembly was meeting in Versailles. People thought that there might be a coup because of the rumors. On July 14, people stormed the Bastille because they wanted to get gunpowder and weapons.
That night, people started spreading rumors that the clergy was hoarding supplies. So, the people broke in and took things. They even took 52 wagons of wheat to a public market.
That same day, other people took more things including weapons from armories. The king’s troops didn’t do anything to stop social chaos in Paris during la Grande Peur (the Great Fear).
In the countryside, many people revolted against the old order. This happened because they wanted to fight against their exploitation. They were so angry that they burned down the houses of tax collectors and landlords.
This made other people scared and it caused them to leave their homes as well. It was a big deal for France because it was part of a bigger change that happened in 1789 when feudalism was abolished by law on August 4th by The National Constituent Assembly.
Read more about Bastille Day Facts
The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
The Constitution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Some rights, like the right to life and freedom of speech, were said to be “natural” rights that belonged to every person. The state had a duty to protect those rights.
The Assembly signed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen). This declaration is a statement about democratic principles. It is based on ideas from Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
The document said that the Assembly will replace the old system with a better one. The new government would have equal opportunity, freedom of speech, and popular sovereignty. They wanted to do this by having a representative government.
A group of people in France for months were wrestling with questions about the country’s new political landscape. For example, they debated who would elect delegates, how much power the king would have in his position, and other issues.
The French government made a constitution in 1791. They had a king with power and could choose the ministers. This was not fair for people who wanted to change the constitution and trial Louis XVI. So they got more supporters and did this anyway.
In the early years, the revolutionary government did introduce laws that helped improve the lives of women. They made schooling compulsory for all girls. Women were able to make their own choices when it came to marriage and divorce. They could also work and be artists or run small businesses.
The Marseillaise is a song that is from France. It was first sung by people from Marseilles, who were marching into Paris and so the name got “Marseillaise”. Now it’s the national anthem of France.
Revolution turns into terror
In April 1792, France declared war on Austria and Prussia. They thought that the French émigrés were building counterrevolutionary alliances in those countries. And they wanted to spread their revolutionary ideals across Europe through warfare.
In France, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by extremists attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792.
A wave of violence was happening in Paris. Hundreds of people who were accused of being counterrevolutionaries were killed. The National Convention became the new leader of revolutionary France.
The National Convention abolished the monarchy and established a republic. In January 1793, they sent King Louis XVI to the guillotine because he was guilty of high treason and crimes against the state. His wife Marie-Antoinette also went to the guillotine nine months later for these same crimes.
After the king was executed, there was war between France and other countries. The people were not all happy because there were some who wanted to be more like England. There were people in the National Convention that did not like what other people wanted, so they took control of it from them. They made a new calendar and told everyone to stop practicing Christianity.
People in the revolution started to fight each other. They would kill people that they thought were against them. This was called “The Reign of Terror.” But then people who did not like this, led by Robespierre, fought back.
The end of the revolution
During the French Revolution, a new constitution was created. The National Convention approved it on August 22, 1795. It created France’s first bicameral legislature. The power was in the hands of a Directory (Directoire) led by five men and appointed by parliament.
Many people protested the new regime. The army then silenced them. There was a new army leader. He was a young and successful general. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte. The Directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular discontent, inefficiency, and political corruption.
Napoleon and the empire
On November 9, 1799, Napoleon took the government by force. He got rid of the Directory and named himself the new leader. This marked the end of the French Revolution and started a time when France became very powerful.
Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself the Emperor of France. He wanted to take over other countries in Europe and put people from his family in charge. Napoleon thought he was a modernizer, so he made laws like making sure people had private property.
At first, lots of people saw him as a liberator but soon they saw that his armies were invading everywhere. Later on, he was defeated at Waterloo.
Read more about Napoleonic Wars
Consequences of the French Revolution
Freedom and democracy were the most important legacy of the French Revolution. People in Europe learned about these ideas during the 19th century, when they overthrew their feudal system. People living in colonies changed the idea of freedom into a movement to create sovereign states.
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