A watershed event in modern European history, the French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens razed and redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system. Like the American Revolution before it, the French Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights. Although it failed to achieve all of its goals and at times degenerated into a chaotic bloodbath, the movement played a critical role in shaping modern nations by showing the world the power inherent in the will of the people.
More to Explore
Louis XVI was the last king of France before the French Revolution of 1789 toppled the monarchy.
Marie Antoinette, the reviled queen of revolutionary France, was executed by guillotine on October 16, 1793. She was 37 years old.
During the American Revolution, Great Britain's 13 American colonies rose up in insurrection and won their independence.
Did You Know?
Over 17,000 people were officially tried and executed during the Reign of Terror, and an unknown number of others died in prison or without trial.
- Prelude to the French Revolution: Monarchy in Crisis
- The French Revolution at Versailles: Rise of the Third Estate
- The French Revolution Hits the Streets: The Bastille and the Great Fear
- The French Revolution's Political Culture: Drafting a Constitution
- The French Revolution Turns Radical: Terror and Revolt
- The French Revolution Ends: Napoleon's Rise
Prelude to the French Revolution: Monarchy in Crisis
As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his predecessor had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy. Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking.
In the fall of 1786, Louis XVI’s controller general, Charles Alexandre de Calonne (1734-1802), proposed a financial reform package that included a universal land tax from which the privileged classes would no longer be exempt. To garner support for these measures and forestall a growing aristocratic revolt, the king summoned the Estates-General (“les états généraux”)–an assembly representing France’s clergy, nobility and middle class–for the first time since 1614. The meeting was scheduled for May 5, 1789; in the meantime, delegates of the three estates from each locality would compile lists of grievances (“cahiers de doléances”) to present to the king.
The French Revolution at Versailles: Rise of the Third Estate
France’s population had changed considerably since 1614. The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. In the lead-up to the May 5 meeting, the Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto–in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. While all of the orders shared a common desire for fiscal and judicial reform as well as a more representative form of government, the nobles in particular were loath to give up the privileges they enjoyed under the traditional system.
By the time the Estates-General convened at Versailles, the highly public debate over its voting process had erupted into hostility between the three orders, eclipsing the original purpose of the meeting and the authority of the man who had convened it. On June 17, with talks over procedure stalled, the Third Estate met alone and formally adopted the title of National Assembly; three days later, they met in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the so-called Tennis Court Oath (“serment du jeu de paume”), vowing not to disperse until constitutional reform had been achieved. Within a week, most of the clerical deputies and 47 liberal nobles had joined them, and on June 27 Louis XVI grudgingly absorbed all three orders into the new assembly.
The French Revolution Hits the Streets: The Bastille and the Great Fear
On June 12, as the National Assembly (known as the National Constituent Assembly during its work on a constitution) continued to meet at Versailles, fear and violence consumed the capital. Though enthusiastic about the recent breakdown of royal power, Parisians grew panicked as rumors of an impending military coup began to circulate. A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution.
The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite. Known as the Great Fear (“la Grande peur”), the agrarian insurrection hastened the growing exodus of nobles from the country and inspired the National Constituent Assembly to abolish feudalism on August 4, 1789, signing what the historian Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order.”
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Classroom Study Guides
French Revolution (PDF)
Study guide to the events leading up to the French Revolution, from the grandeur of Versailles as King Louis XVI wed Marie Antoinette through the dramatic culmination of the revolutionary period as thousands of dead were left in its wake.