FRANCE HISTORY, the french revolution, french history

France History : French revolution, la Bastille

France History : the french revolution

The French Revolution, as a period in the history of France, covers the years 1789 to 1799, in which republicans overthrew the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. While France would oscillate among republic, empire, and monarchy for 75 years after the First Republic fell to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution nonetheless spelled a definitive end to the ancien régime, and eclipses all subsequent revolutions in France in the popular imagination.

Many factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners and with individuals of all classes who had come under the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment.

As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.

Certainly, causes of the revolution must include all of the following:

* Resentment of royal absolutism.
* Resentment of the seigneurial system by peasants, wage-earners, and a rising bourgeoisie.
* The rise of enlightenment ideals.
* An unmanageable national debt, both caused by and exacerbating the burden of a grossly inequitable system of taxation.
* Food scarcity in the years immediately before the revolution.

Prelude 1770s

Proto-revolutionary activity started when the French king Louis XVI (reigned 1774 – 1792) faced a crisis in the royal finances. The French crown, which fiscally exactly equated to the French state, owed considerable debt. During the régimes of Louis XV (ruled 1715 – 1774) and Louis XVI several different ministers, including Turgot and Jacques Necker, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlements (law courts), which the nobility dominated.

The subsequent struggle with the parlements in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of the disintegration of the ancien régime. In the ensuing struggle:

Protestants regained their rights.
Louis XVI promised an annual publication of the state of finances.
Louis XVI promised to convoke the Estates-General within five years.
After Etienne Charles de Loménie de Brienne’s resignation on August 25, 1788, and with Necker back in charge of the nation’s finances, the king, on August 8, 1788, agreed to convene the Estates-General in May 1789, for the first time since 1614.

The prospect of an Estates-General highlighted the conflict of interest between, on the one hand, the First and Second Estates (the clergy and nobility respectively) and, on the other, the Third Estate (in theory, all of the commoners; in practice the middle class or bourgeoisie). According to the model of 1614, the Estates-General would consist of equal numbers of representatives of each Estate. The Third Estate demanded (and ultimately received) double representation (which they already had in the provincial assemblies). However, this double representation would prove something of a sham.

From the meeting of the Estates-General to the storming of the Bastille May 5, 1789 – July 27, 1789

When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on May 5, 1789, it became clear that the double representation had not, as it had appeared to some, already peacefully accomplished a revolution. Instead, it was at best a symbol. Voting would occur « by orders »: the collective vote of the 578 representatives of the Third Estate would count exactly as heavily as that of each of the other Estates.

Royal efforts to focus solely on taxes failed totally. The Estates-General reached an immediate impasse, debating (with each of the three estates meeting separately) its own structure rather than the nation’s finances. On May 28, 1789, the Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes (English: « Commons »), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them.

They proceeded to do so, completing the process on June 17. Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of « the People ». They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation’s affairs with or without them.

Louis XVI shut the Salle des États where the Assembly met; the Assembly moved their deliberations to the king’s tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (June 20, 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did forty-seven members of the nobility.

By June 27 the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, the Assembly reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly.

In Paris, the Palais Royal and its grounds became the site of a continuous meeting. Some of the military leaned toward the popular cause.

On July 11, 1789, the king, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished the reformist minister Necker and completely reconstructed the ministry. Much of Paris, presuming this to be the start of a royal coup, moved into open rebellion. Some of the military joined the mob; others remained neutral.

On July 14, 1789, after four hours of combat, the insurgents seized the Bastille prison, killing Marquis Bernard de Launay and several of his guard. Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners — four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender — the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the ancien régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal, he was assassinated.

The king and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. Lafeyette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly — leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath — became the city’s mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The king announced his return from Versailles to Paris, where, on July 27, he accepted a tricolore cockade, as cries of « Long live the Nation » changed to « Long live the King ».

Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles — little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people — started to flee the country as émigrés, some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.

Necker, recalled to power, experienced but a short-lived triumph. An astute financier but a less astute politician, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people’s favor in his moment of apparent triumph.

Insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux.

From the abolition of feudalism to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy August 4, 1789 – July 12, 1790

On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.

While there would follow retreats, regrets, and much argument over the racbat au denier 30 (« redemption at a thirty-years’ purchase ») specified in the legislation of August 4, the course now remained set, although the full process would take another four years.

Factions within the Assembly began to become clearer. What would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution, was led at this time by the aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury. The « Royalist democrats » allied with Necker, inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitutional model, included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, Comte de Virieu.

The « National Party », representing mainly the interests of the middle classes, included Honoré Mirabeau, Lafayette, and Bailly; somewhat more extreme were Adrien Duport, Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, and Alexander Lameth.

The abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political center and the left.

In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.

Looking to the United States Declaration of Independence for a model, on August 26, 1789 the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect.

Towards a Constitution

The National Constituent Assembly functioned not only as a legislature, but also as a body to draft a new constitution.

Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the king on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. Only a « suspensive veto » was left to the king (he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely).

The people of Paris thwarted Royalist efforts to block this new order: they marched on Versailles on October 5, 1789. After various scuffles and incidents, the king and the Royal Family allowed themselves to be brought back from Versailles to Paris.

The Assembly replaced the historic provinces with eighty-three départements, uniformly administered and nearly equal to one another in extent and population.

Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, to date the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, with the Assembly giving Necker complete financial dictatorship.

Toward the Civil Constitution of the Clergy

To no small extent, the Assembly addressed the financial crisis by having the nation take over the property of the Church (while taking on the Church’s expenses), through the law of December 2, 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, the government introduced a new paper currency, assignats, backed by the confiscated church lands.

Further legislation on February 13, 1790 abolished monastic vows. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on July 12, 1790 (although not signed by the king until December 26, 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution.

In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and the bishop of Clermont led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement (« jurors » or « constitutional clergy ») and the « non-jurors » or « refractory priests » who refused to do so.

From the summer of 1790 to the establishment of the Legislative Assembly July 1790 – 1791
The anniversary of the Bastille

The Assembly declared a celebration for July 14, 1790 on the Champ de Mars. By way of prelude to this patriotic fête, on June 20, the Assembly, at the urging of the popular members of the nobility, abolished all titles, armorial bearings, liveries, and orders of knighthood, destroying the symbolic paraphernalia of the ancien régime. This further alienated the more conservative nobles, and added to the ranks of the émigrés.

On the 14th, Talleyrand performed a mass; participants swore an oath of « fidelity to the nation, the law, and the king »; the king and the royal family actively participated in the celebrations, which went on for several days.

The Constituent Assembly continues

The members of the States-General had originally been elected to serve for a single year. By the Tennis Court Oath, the communes had bound themselves to meet continuously until France had a constitution, a goal which had not yet been achieved in the course of a year. Right-wing elements, such as the abbé Maury, argued for a new election — by each of the three estates, separately — hoping that the events of the last year would encourage far more conservative representatives of at least the first two estates.

Isaac le Chapelier described this as « the hope of those who wish to see liberty and the constitution perish. » Maury responded by characterizing the effort to avoid an election as « calculated to limit the rights of the people over their representatives. »

However, Mirabeau carried the day, asserting that the status of the assembly had fundamentally changed, and that no new election would take place before completing the constitution: « It is asked how long the deputies of the people have been a national convention? I answer, from the day when, finding the door of their session-house surrounded by soldiers, they went and assembled where they could, and swore to perish rather than betray or abandon the rights of the nation… Whatever powers we may have exercised, our efforts and labours have rendered them legitimate… » [1] (

Around this time, several small counter-revolutionary uprisings broke out and efforts took place to turn all or part of the army against the revolution. These uniformly failed. The court, in Mignet’s words « encouraged every anti-revolutionary enterprise and avowed none, » [2] ( while negotiating with Mirabeau for more favorable treatment under a constitution, if one could not be prevented.

Work on a constitution continues

Amidst these intrigues, the assembly continued to work on developing a constitution. A new judicial organization made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The king would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war.

Turmoil in the military

The army faced considerable internal turmoil: in Nancy, in August 1790, three regiments, those of Châteauvieux, Maître-de-camp, and the King’s own regiment, rebelled against their chiefs. General Bouillé successfully put down the rebellion, which added to his (probably correct) reputation for counter-revolutionary sympathies.

Under the new military code promotion depended on seniority and proven competence, rather than on nobility. In one detrimental consequence of this generally sound policy large portions of the existing officer corps, seeing that they would no longer stand to gain promotion, left the army, and even the country, and attempted to stir up international diplomatic and even military opposition to the new, more democratic order.

Others (such as Bouillé) stayed inside the military, but remained insincere in their oaths to the new regime, and became a counter-revolutionary threat from within.

The Legislative Assembly and the Fall of the Monarchy 1791-1792

The King tried to flee in June 1791 to join the nobles in exile, but his flight to Varennes did not succeed. He reluctantly accepted the new constitution in September 1791, which made France a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with the elected Legislative Assembly (successor to the National Assembly), but he still retained his royal veto and the ability to select ministers.

New factions emerged, such as the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists), Girondins (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries). The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins wanted to wage war. The King wanted war: he expected to increase his personal popularity or to exploit a defeat: either would make him stronger.

The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution through Europe. France declared war on Austria (April 20, 1792) and Prussia joined on the Austrian side a few weeks later. The French Revolutionary Wars had begun.

The first significant military engagement of the French Revolutionary Wars occurred with the Franco-Prussian Battle of Valmy (September 20, 1792). Although heavy rain prevented a conclusive resolution, the French artillery proved its superiority.

The Paris Commune 1792

Nonetheless, fighting soon went badly and prices rose sky-high. In August 1792 a mob assaulted the Royal Palace in Paris and arrested the King. On September 21, 1792 the Assembly abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. The French Revolutionary Calendar commenced.

The Convention 1792-September 26, 1795

The legislative power in the new republic fell to a National Convention, while the executive power came to rest in the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins became the most influential party in the Convention and on the Committee.

January 21, 1793 saw King Louis condemned to death for « conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety » by a 1-vote Convention majority of 361 to 360. The execution caused more wars with other European countries.

When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This caused the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup. The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793 – 1794).

At least 1200 people met their deaths under the guillotine – or otherwise – after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. The slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and the trials did not proceed over-scrupulously. This series of events can reasonably compare with the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

In 1794 Robespierre had ultraradicals and moderate Jacobins executed, so eliminating his own popular support. On July 27, 1794, the French people revolted against the excesses of the Reign of Terror in what became known as the Thermidorian Reaction. It resulted in moderate Convention members deposing and executing Robespierre and several other leading members of the Committee of Public Safety. The Convention approved the new « Constitution of the Year III » on 17 August 1795; a plebiscite ratified it in September; and it took effect on September 26, 1795.

The Directoire September 26, 1795 – November 9, 1799

The new constitution installed the Directoire (English: Directory) and created the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament consisted of 500 representatives (the Conseil des Cinq-Cent (Council of the Five Hundred)) and 250 senators (the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Seniors)). Executive power went to five « directors, » named annually by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by the Conseil des Cinq-Cent.

The new régime met with opposition from remaining Jacobins and royalists. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte gained much power.

On November 9, 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Napoleon staged the coup which installed the Consulate; this effectively led to his dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as emperor, which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.

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