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The French Revolution also called “The revolution of 1789”, began in 1789 and lasted a decade until the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. Years of feudal oppression and fiscal mismanagement led French people into a mindset that they could recreate the society by bringing about a change in politics and institutions.

The most glorious kingdom in Europe then faced an unexpected mighty fall when people overthrew the monarchy and took charge of the government.

The major events of this pivotal moment in modern European history can be summed up in the following points:

Summary of The French Revolution

Summary of the French Revolution
  • As the 18th century came to an end, France’s high-priced entanglement in the American Revolution and imprudent spending by King Louis XVI and his predecessor had left the country on the verge of bankruptcy.
  • The bourgeoisie—merchants, manufacturers, professionals—despite being financially powerful, were excluded from political power which ignited resentment.
  • Two decades of poor harvests, drought, and cattle disease led to their staple diet, bread, costing an arm and a leg. This furthered the existing economic crisis.
  • Peasants and the urban poor expressed their resentment towards the monarchy, once viewed as divinely ordained. A regime that imposed heavy taxes – yet failed to provide any relief – was now hated.
  • Several intellectuals arguing for social reforms began gaining popularity and the French monarchy was unable to adapt to the political and societal pressures being exerted on it.
  • With widespread inequality between the rich and poor classes alongside growing dissatisfaction with the antiquated feudal system among the poor, revolution became all but inevitable.
  • The revolution began when the controller general of finances, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, in February 1787, proposed reforms designed to eliminate the economic crisis by increasing the taxation of the privileged classes.
  • To prevent a growing aristocratic riot, the king summoned the Estates-General – an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility, and middle class.
  • The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789. The commoners, also known as the third estate, paid the most tax and were the most in number among estates.
  • The Third Estate wanted votes by heads and not by status, so they began to gather support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto.
  • On June 17, with talks over procedure delayed because of aversion between the three orders, the Third Estate met by themselves and formally assumed the title of the National Assembly.
  • Three days later, they gathered in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath (serment du jeu de paume), pledging not to disperse until constitutional reformation had been achieved.
  • Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI half-heartedly incorporated all three orders into the new assembly.
  • On July 14, 1789, the Paris mob, unsatisfied with the government, hungry and disheartened at the conditions of their lives, stormed the Bastille fortress (a prison) in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons. 
  • This historic event is now commemorated as the start of the French Revolution.
  • This wave of revolution swept everywhere, and peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords, and the elites.
  • The nobles and the bourgeois saw no choice but to abolish feudalism, and so they did on August 4, 1789. 
  • Then on August 26, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen was introduced, proclaiming liberty, equality, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty, and representative government.
  • France’s first written constitution was adopted on September 3, 1791. It established a constitutional monarchy in which the king enjoyed royal veto power and the ability to appoint ministers. 
  • But influential radicals like Maximilien de Robespierre, Camille Desmoulins, and Georges Danton began petitioning for a more republican form of government and the trial of Louis XVI. 
  • In October 1789, King Louis and his family were moved from the Royal Palace in Versailles to Paris. He even tried to flee while in Paris but was caught.
  • The Republic of France was declared in 1792, and soon the King was put on trial.
  • The period from 1793 to 1794, known as the Reign of Terror was the darkest period of the revolution.
  • During this time, Robespierre led the National Convention and the Committee of Public Safety. Laws were passed that said anyone suspected of treason could be arrested and executed by guillotine and thousands of people were executed, many of whom were Robespierre’s political rivals. 
  • On January 21, 1793, King Louis XVI was condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine.
  • Also known as the last queen of France, his wife Marie-Antoinette who was from Austria underwent the same fate nine months later. She was hated by the public for her extravagant spending and indifferent nature.
  • Then there were bitter wars with various European powers and intense divisions.
  • In June 1793, the Jacobins secured control of the National Convention which changed a multitude of things.
  • An entirely new calendar was established and Christianity was eradicated. 
  • On July 28, 1794, Robespierre was executed which marked the beginning of the Thermidorian Reaction, a moderate phase in which the French people rebelled against the Reign of Terror’s excesses.
  • The National Convention approved a new constitution on August 22, 1795, which created France’s first bicameral legislature.
  • Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory appointed by parliament. 
  • Although Royalists and Jacobins protested against the new regime, they were space silenced by the army, now commanded by a juvenile and thriving general named Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • The Directory’s four years in power saw financial crises, popular discontent, incompetence, and, above all, political corruption. By the late 1790s, and generals in the military had most of the power.
  • Frustrated with the leadership of the Directory, Bonaparte staged a coup d’état on November 9, 1799. He appointed himself France’s “first consul.” 
  • This event marked the beginning of the Napoleonic era, which brought an end to the French Revolution.
  • Although all of its goals were not achieved and at times led to a chaotic bloodbath, the French Revolution played a crucial role in shaping modern nations by teaching the world the power in the will of the people.