A SHORT HISTORY OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
By Tim Lambert
The Revolt of the Nobles
The French Revolution began as a revolt of the nobles. In theory the king was an absolute monarch who could do as he pleased. However after 1774 it turned out he was not so powerful as he seemed. At first resistance to the king was led by bodies called parlements. They were not elected bodies. They were bodies of nobles who acted as royal courts. However one of their duties was to register the king's decrees. In the late 18th century the nobles who made up the parlements began to feel that their traditional feudal rights were under attack and they resisted the king by refusing to register decrees.
(Most importantly the nobility were exempt from many taxes and they jealously guarded this right).
Whenever the parlements disagreed with the king they were eventually forced to submit but they were becoming foci of resistance to the king.
In 1778 France declared war on Britain in support of the American rebels. The war was very expensive. France had to borrow heavily to pay for the war and the loans were very difficult to repay. So in 1786 the finance minister, Calonne, proposed a new tax on land (with no exemptions for the rich) and a stamp tax. Calonne feared the parlements would resist the idea so he persuaded the king to call a Council of notables to discuss the idea. Calonne hoped that if they agreed to it the parlements would not dare to resist.
However things did not go according to plan. The Assembly of Notables was not elected, its members were appointed by the king and they were almost all nobles. Yet when they met in 1787 the notables declared they had no power to accept the plans. Instead they suggested the king call the Estates-General. (This was an elected body that had not met since 1614).
The king dismissed the assembly and in June 1787 he sent the new tax measures to the Paris parlement to register. However, as feared the parlement refused to register. In August it was sent into exile but in September 1787 the king was forced to recall it.
Across France parlements continued to reject the king's schemes and clamored for the Estates-General to be called. Finally in July 1788 the king gave in. He agreed to call the Estates-General.
However the king was unlucky. The harvests of 1787 and 1788 in France were poor and bread (the staple food of the poor) was expensive so the people were in an ugly mood.
The French Revolution of 1789
The Estates-General had not met since 1614. It was divided into three parts. The third estate represented the ordinary people (the vast majority of the population). The second estate represented the clergy and the first estate represented the nobility. However the consent of all three estates was needed to pass a measure. So the nobles or the clergy could veto any measure passed by the third estate.
The third estate thought that was not fair as they represented the vast majority of the people in France. They wanted the Estates-General to vote as a single unit, with all its members put together. If a majority of all the members voted for a measure it would pass. At that time half of all the members of the Estates-General were in the third estate. So if some members of the clergy and nobility voted with them they could push through reforms.
The Estates-General met on 5 May 1789 and promptly began to argue over how they should vote. Finally the third estate lost patience and in June they declared themselves the true representatives of the people of France. On 17 June they declared themselves the National Assembly. On 19 June the clergy voted, by a narrow majority, to join them.
However the king and his advisers were alarmed. So when the deputies arrived on Saturday 20 June they found their building locked and guarded by soldiers. However the third estate refused to disperse. They met in a tennis court nearby and took an oath not to disperse until the king met their demands. On Monday 22 June the majority of the clergy joined them.
The king prevaricated. Then finally, on 27 June, he caved in. He ordered the three estates to join together and vote as one body His decision caused rejoicing in Paris. It seemed that the reformers had one.
However the king then ordered troops to march towards Paris. The people were alarmed and they searched for weapons to defend themselves. On the morning of 14 July 1789 they seized cannons and guns from the Invalides (a hospital for military veterans). They then surrounded a fortress and prison called the Bastille. The governor was forced to surrender. To the ordinary people the Bastille was enormously important as a symbol of royal power and arbitrary government.
The king was then advised that the army was unreliable. The soldiers might refuse to fire on the people. So Louis backed down from using force. In one stroke the king's authority evaporated.
Following the fall of the Bastille Paris was given a new city government with a man named Bailly as mayor. To preserve law and order in Paris a citizen's militia was formed. It was called the National Guard and it was led by a man named Lafayette.
A wave of unrest then swept rural France. It was known as the La Grand Peur (Great Fear). Rumors spread that the aristocrats had hired brigands to take revenge on the peasants. (At a time when people were anxious and desperate rumors spread quickly). The peasants grabbed arms to defend themselves. When the bands of brigands failed to materialize the peasants turned on their masters.
The peasants had always been burdened with feudal dues to their lords. Now they seized and burned records of feudal dues. In some cases they sacked or burned buildings.
Alarmed the National Assembly decided the only way to calm the situation was to abolish feudal dues as soon as possible. On the night of 4 August 1789 the assembly voted to scrap the feudal privileges of the nobility in France.
On 26 August 1789 the Assembly voted for the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. It declared that all men are born free and equal. Arbitrary arrest and imprisonment were outlawed. Furthermore in future all appointments to public posts would be open to everybody and would be solely on the basis of ability.
However the economic situation in France grew worse. The price of bread continued to rise and the ordinary people grew more desperate.
Meanwhile King Louis ordered troops to move from the border to his palace at Versailles, near Paris, alarming the Parisians. On 5 October 1789 crowds of women gathered in Paris and seized arms and cannons. They marched to Versailles and entered a meeting of the National Assembly demanding bread. They also sent a deputation to the king who immediately gave in and accepted all the decrees previously made by the Assembly.
Meanwhile the National Guard marched out to Versailles. Their leader Lafayette, was reluctant to leave Paris unguarded but his men demanded it. When he arrived Lafayette 'requested' the king leave Versailles and come to Paris. However the crowds of ordinary people demanded it. Faced with popular uproar Louis gave in and on 6 October agreed to move to the capital.
Meanwhile the Assembly reformed local government. The old parlements were swept away and new courts were formed. 83 departments replaced the old regions of France. All were run by elected councils. The old taxes were abolished and replaced by new ones.
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy
The French revolution also destroyed the power of the Catholic Church. On 4 August 1789 tithes were abolished (until then people had to pay one tenth of their income to the Church). In November the Assembly voted to confiscate land belonging to the Church and pay the clergy a salary (making them state employees).
A committee of the Assembly drew up plans to reform the Church. It decided a pay scale and changed the number of bishops. From then on there would be 83, one for each department. The number of parishes was also reduced.
Furthermore in future parish priests would be elected by district assemblies. Bishops would be elected by departmental assemblies.
These new plans were ready in July 1790 and they were called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Naturally many of the clergy refused to co-operate and in November 1790 the Assembly voted to dismiss any clergyman who would not swear an oath of loyalty to the new constitution.
Across France some clergymen did take the oath. Others refused and resigned. Furthermore from 1790 France began to split between those who felt the revolution had gone far enough and those who wanted to go further.
Then in 1791 the king made things worse by attempting to flee France. On the night of 20 June he and his family slipped away. However the king was recognized. The royal party was stopped at Varennes. It was now obvious that the king rejected the revolution and would turn the clock back if he could. Louis alienated many people in France.
Nevertheless in September 1791 the new constitution was ready and the king accepted it. The king still kept some powers including the right to appoint and dismiss ministers. Furthermore not all men could vote. The poorest class was excluded but at the time that was normal.
In October 1791 a new assembly called the legislative assembly met. The new assembly had a 'lifetime' of two years. Every two years elections were to be held for a new one.
Unfortunately the king was given the power to veto the assembly's decrees, not permanently but for the rest of the lifetime of that particular assembly, a maximum of two years.
However the French revolution entered a new radical phase in 1792 when war began with Austria in April and with Prussia in May. However at first the war went very badly for France leading to fear and recriminations.
Moreover in the Summer of 1792 public opinion hardened against the king. At that time Paris was divided into sections with sectional assemblies. On 9 August they seized power. They joined to form the Paris Commune and they sent national guards to arrest the king. The king and his family took refuge and escaped harm. However the king's Swiss guard tried to stop the national guard and were massacred.
The Legislative Assembly then declared that the king was suspended. The Constitution of 1791 (which gave the king an important role) was now unworkable. The assembly then agreed to call elections for a new government, the National Convention, which met in September 1792.
Meanwhile on 17 August 1792 the Commune formed a tribunal to try people accused of political crimes. The first political prisoner was guillotined on 21 August.
Then, in September 1792, massacres of political prisoners took place. At that time the Prussian army was advancing into France. The Parisians were frantic and they began killing prisoners held in jails in the city. Kangaroo courts were set up and thousands of people were killed. The killings became known as the September massacres.
However on 20 August 1792 the French army halted the Prussians at Valmy.
The French revolution had now entered a new phase. The new government, the National Convention, abolished the monarchy. In December 1792 the king was put on trial. He was executed on 15 January 1793. Marie Antoinette followed him to the guillotine on 16 October 1793.
After the execution of the king Britain went to war with France. Increasingly desperate the French government introduced conscription in February 1793.
Meanwhile in conservative parts of France the revolution was becoming increasingly unpopular and conscription was the last straw. Finally in March 1793 the Vendee and parts of Brittany rose in revolt. However by December the uprising was crushed, with appalling bloodshed.
However as well as facing internal revolt the French government was faced with military defeat in early 1793. In April a kind of war cabinet called the Committee for Public Safety was formed.
In June there was another popular uprising in Paris. This time the National Convention was purged. The moderate members (called Girondins) were removed and the extreme revolutionaries (called Jacobins) took control. The French revolution now entered its most extreme phase.
In August the British captured Toulon. On 23 August faced with a dire military situation the government called for the mobilization of the whole nation of France for war. It was called the Levee en masse.
The French Revolution enters a more extreme phase (The Terror)
Meanwhile in March 1793 Watch Committees were formed to monitor foreigners and other suspects. In September 1793 the committees were given much greater powers. From then on anyone who 'by their conduct, their contacts, their words or by their writings' were revealed to be 'supporters of tyranny, of federalism and or to be enemies of liberty' could be arrested. Such a catch-all phrase meant virtually anybody could be arrested and executed.
In the following 9 months at least 16,000 people were executed. (The exact number is not known and it may have been much higher).
Meanwhile the military tide turned. In October 1793 the French army defeated the Austrians at Wattignies. In December 1793 Captain Napoleon Bonaparte recaptured Toulon.
Many Jacobins were deists or atheists and were bitterly opposed to Christianity. In September 1793 a movement called De-Christianization began. The church was persecuted. Churches were vandalized and closed. The church of Notre-Dame was renamed the 'Temple of Reason'.
In October a new calendar was adopted. Years were no longer counted from the birth of Christ. Instead they began on 22 September 1792, the first day of the republic. The year was divided into twelve months with names taken from nature. The seven day week was replaced by a ten day one.
However the Convention now became thoroughly alarmed. The members now feared for their lives, realizing that Robespierre might arrest and execute any of them. The only way to ensure their safety was to denounce Robespierre and remove him from power. This they did.
Robespierre then tried to shoot himself but he was arrested on 27 July. He was sent to the guillotine on 28 July 1794.
The apparatus of terror was then dismantled. On 10 August 1794 the Revolutionary Tribunal was purged. (It was finally closed in May 1795). On 11 August the powers of the Committee of Public Safety were curtailed. Furthermore thousands of prisoners were released.
In March 1795 many churches re-opened for worship for the first time since October 1793.
The Convention now drew up a new constitution, which was ready in August 1794. France would have a bicameral legislature. Executive power was held by a group of five called the Directory. Furthermore In October 1794 the National Guard and the sectional assemblies were abolished.
Napoleon I and the end of Revolution
However the Directory failed to solve political problems in France and restore stability. By 1799 many people yearned for a return to stability and one man promised to provide it - Napoleon Bonaparte. He first came to the public's notice in September 1795 when he suppressed a riot in Paris with a 'whiff of grapeshot'. In 1796-97 he became a hero when he led a brilliant campaign against the Austrians in North Italy.
In 1798-1799 Napoleon fought a campaign in Egypt. Although he was successful on land the French fleet was shattered at the battle of the Nile in 1798.
In October 1799 Napoleon returned to France and in November he staged a coup. The French Revolution had ended and a new era had begun.
A history of France
A history of Paris
A timeline of France