The American Revolution inspired many people around the world in the ideas of democracy and this was certainly true of France, which had sent over many soldiers to fight in the Americas and had helped subsidize the war. In fact, it was the crisis in the royal finances, partly because of the money paid in the American War of Independence, that resulted in the series of events that led to the French Revolution.
Louis XVI had become king in 1774, and until 1776, his comptroller-general of finances was Anne- Robert-Jacques Turgot. In 1777 Jacques Necker was appointed as director-general of finances, and he tried to change the French taxation system to make it more uniform. This involved eroding the power of some of the law courts, which preserved aristocratic privileges. Necker was, however, undermined by the nobles, who were anxious to retain their status of not paying taxes, and he was forced from office. Charles-Alexandre de Calonne became comptroller-general of finances in 1783, and his aim was not to have any austerity drives nor reign in expenditure but to spend more to encourage the economy and also increase the confidence of potential creditors in the stability of the French financial system. However, Calonne realized that this would not work in the long term and what was needed was a new taxation system.
Reformation and Constitution
The new taxation system would be a universal land tax that would replace all other taxes. To get this approved, it was necessary to have it supported by the Assembly of Notables. The assembly was convened in 1787 but refused to accept this, and Calonne was soon replaced by the leader of the assembly, Etienne-Charles Lomenie de Brienne. Brienne, however, quickly came to see the merit in Calonne’s proposals and put his ideas to the king. The Paris Parlement and the 14 provincial parlements liked many of the administrative reforms but baulked at the idea of a universal land tax. This left the government with the only option open to itself, the calling of the Estates General, which had last met in 1614, and have that body approve the tax reforms.
The Paris Parlement called for the Estates General to have the same “forms of 1614” when it last met, which involved equal numbers of representatives of the three “estates.” The first estate was the clergy, the second estate was the nobility, and the third estate was the middle class and peasants. With the three bodies voting “by order,” it was possible for the first two to outvote the third. There were protests, and it was decided that there would be twice as many representatives of the third estate as each of the other two. This led to debate over whether the members should actually all vote “by head,” whereby the decision would be carried when a majority of the elected representatives supported a decision. It was decided to leave that decision to the assembly, which convened at Versailles on May 5, 1789.
Many members of the third estate decided to change the whole system by turning themselves into a “National Assembly of the People.” Louis XVI reacted by closing the Salles des Etats, where the assembly was meeting, and the members then convened at a nearby indoor tennis court, where they swore the Tennis Court Oath on June 20, 1789, whereby they undertook not to leave until France had a constitution. In this move they were joined by a majority of the clergy and also 47 nobles.
The military arrived to try to restore the king’s authority, but, on July 9, the National Assembly changed itself into the National Constituent Assembly, intent on introducing a new written constitution. The king decided to dismiss Necker, who had tried to push through his administrative reforms, and many people in Paris thought that the king was about to take control. To forestall this, large crowds started arming themselves and decided to try to take charge of the supplies of gunpowder held at the Invalides, which they could then deny to the royal troops.
Some of the crowd wore a red, white, and blue cockade in their hats, and this quickly became popular with the revolutionaries and the demonstrators in coming years. When they got to the Invalides they found the gunpowder had been transferred to the Bastille and were convinced that the king was plotting a coup d’etat. On the following day, July 14, the crowds started surging around the Bastille and three city deputies were admitted. One of them, Thuriot de la Rosiere, requested that the governor, the marquis de Launay, draw back his cannons and not antagonize the crowd, and then let the crowds in. De Launay pulled back his cannon but would not allow the crowds in.
By noon the crowds had swelled, and the first drawbridge was let down, but the second remained up. As the crowd advanced into the courtyard, some soldiers fired to try to protect the second drawbridge. At 3 p.m., de Launay at last agreed to lower the drawbridge, and he and his 114 soldiers were then taken prisoner. De Launay was killed, along with seven soldiers, as the Bastille was sacked and the seven prisoners inside were released. The Bastille had represented royal power and despotism as many political prisoners had been held there in previous centuries. It was later demolished, and many people, including numbers of foreigners, collected bricks as souvenirs.
Demonstrations and Unrest
By this time there was widespread unrest and civil commotion throughout Paris and, indeed, around the rest of the country. On August 4 the National Constituent Assembly passed what became known as the “August Decrees,” which ended all the special privileges for nobles, clergy, cities, towns, provinces, and guilds. On August 26 the assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which, like the U.S. Declaration of Independence, was a statement of intent rather than law.
The king had managed to get through most of this untouched, and many Parisians thought that the main problem was that the king was being badly advised in Versailles and ought to move to Paris. To achieve this, on October 5, a crowd of people from Paris, including large numbers of working women, formed what became the Women’s March on Versailles. They gathered outside the Hotel de Ville in Paris initially to demonstrate against the increasing price of bread. Gradually, they were persuaded to petition the king himself, and they set off for Versailles, accompanied by marquis de Lafayette, leading the National Guard. They were angered by stories of banquets held at Versailles, such as the one four days earlier for the royal guards, and on reaching the palace at Versailles, some of their number forced their way into the king’s apartments, killing two of his guards. The king was finally persuaded to appear at the balcony and address the crowd to calm them down. This did reduce the tensions, but when Queen Marie Antoinette appeared there were hoots, and it seemed that some of the crowd might open fire at her. As the queen tried to withdraw, Lafayette, seizing the moment, then kissed her hand. The people cheered and the king agreed that he and his family would move to Paris.
On October 6, 1789, the king left Versailles for Paris, with the Constituent Assembly also moving to the French capital. By this time there were thousands of national guards to keep order. In Paris, reforms continued with the replacing of the provinces of France with the 83 departements, which were uniformly administered and all approximately of the same size and population. The Roman Catholic Church was also stripped of much of its power and wealth. On November 1789 the lands owned by the church in France were nationalized, and in February 1790 the religious orders had been suppressed. By July 1790 all that remained of the church was made, by the civil constitution, an extension of the French state. Pope Pius VI remained silent initially, but in March 1791 he condemned the civil constitution and the other changes; he was later also to condemn the execution of Louis XVI.
The Calm Before the Storm
On July 14, 1790, on the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the Festival of the Declaration was held at the Champ-de-Mars, with the people present swearing an oath of loyalty “to the nation, the law and the king.” Led by Lafayette, the people swore the oath “we swear to be ever faithful to the nation, the law and the king.” Even the king swore the oath, and Marie Antoinette held her son out for all the crowd to see. There were then chants of “Vive le roi, vive la reine, vive le dauphin” (“Long live the king, long live the queen, long live the crown prince”). The French tricolor flag was unveiled, with 40,000 spectators cheering.
Flight of the King
The increasing power of the National Constituent Assembly meant that factions started to form, and in France some areas introduced more radical reforms, while others sought to restrict them. The emerging powers were members of the Jacobin Club and the Girondins, the former being extremely radical in their ideas, the latter more moderate. Sensing what might happen, many nobles and other wealthy Frenchmen started to leave the country. The National Constituent Assembly decided to legislate against these emigres by seizing their property. As tensions escalated, Louis XVI fled Paris. Together with his family, he took part in a plot organized by Count Axel Fersen, a Swedish diplomat and close personal friend of the queen, and early in the morning of June 20, 1791, the royal family fled their residence at the Tuileries dressed as servants with some of their servants dressed as nobles.
They managed to get as far as Varennes, close to where Austrian soldiers were based, the queen being Austrian. However, the escape attempt failed because the king, anxious to travel with his family, needed a large coach rather than the two smaller (and faster) ones that Fersen had wanted. Furthermore, some people started to stare at the coach as it went past, and the king, without thinking, started to wave at people who cheered him, and it soon became obvious to all who he was. The coach in which they were traveling was stopped, and, on June 22, the king and the royal family were brought back to Paris surrounded by 6,000 national guardsmen. The Constituent Assembly made out that the king had been kidnapped, but most realized what had happened. The king was suspended from his position, and he and his wife were held under guard.
The situation for the king became worse when Leopold II, the Holy Roman Emperor (and brother of Marie Antoinette), King Frederick William ii of Prussia, and Charles-Phillipe, comte d’Artois, the younger brother of Louis XVI, issued the Declaration of Pilnitz in which they demanded the liberty of Louis XVI and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly or they would invade France to achieve their will. This changed the situation dramatically, and when Leopold II died on March 1, 1792, the French decided to declare war on Austria, which took place on April 20. The Prussians then siding with the Austrians sent their soldiers into France but were stopped by the French at the Battle of Valmy.
The king was in an increasingly difficult position because to say anything other than urging people to fight the Austrians and the Prussians was tantamount to treason. On August 10, 1792, large numbers of people charged into the Tuileries, where Louis XVI and his family were held. They overwhelmed the Swiss guards who were there, killing many of them, and the newly established Paris Commune took over control of much of the city. They sent men into the prisons, where some 1,400 people were summarily tried and executed; these became known as the September massacres. The Assembly was unable to do anything, but a National Convention was formed that proclaimed itself the de facto government of France on September 20, abolishing the monarchy on the next day, and declaring France a republic. This date later became the start of Year 1 of the French Revolutionary Calendar.
The French rallied to support the Convention and many were angered by the Brunswick Declaration by which the Austrians and Prussians threatened retaliation if Louis XVI was injured. On December 21 “Louis Capet, until now king of France,” was arraigned before the Convention. After his trial, on January 17, Louis XVI was sentenced to death by guillotine for “conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety,” only by a small majority. He was executed four days later; his last words “I die innocent, I forgive my enemies. May my blood be useful to France; may it appease the anger of God.” His widow, Marie Antoinette, was executed on October 16, and their eldest son, who became in royalist eyes Louis XVII, died while in prison. This left the younger brothers of Louis XVI—Louis, comte de Provence (later Louis XVIII), and Charles, comte d’Artois (later Charles X), as the royalist claimants to the throne. Both had managed to leave France before the Revolution.
The Reign of Terror
At this time the Committee of Public Safety, set up by the Convention, came to be controlled by a lawyer and Jacobin radical named Maximilien Robespierre. He unleashed what became known as the Reign of Terror, in which some 18,000 people were executed, mostly by the guillotine, for counterrevolutionary activities. Many of those killed were people who had supported the initial revolution but who felt that Robespierre had gone too far.
Included in those who were executed were many Girondins and also Philippe Egalite, formerly the duke of Orleans, who had even voted for the death of Louis XVI, his first cousin. Georges-Jacques Danton, one of the great revolutionary leaders, was also denounced and executed. A great orator, he had been a longtime opponent of Robespierre. Many people tried to escape to England, Spain, Switzerland, or Germany, accounts captured in novels such as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens and the Scarlet Pimpernel books of Baroness Orczy.
The reign of terror reached its peak on October 24, with the start of the use of the revolutionary calendar, back-dated to September 20 of the previous year. Just over a fortnight later, on November 10, Notre-Dame Cathedral was turned into the Temple of Reason, with Lady Liberty replacing the Virgin Mary on some of the altars. To change the internal dynamics of the cathedral, a stage set from the Opera was placed in the transept of the cathedral, in the center of which was a model of a mountain with the classical image of philosophy mounted on it.
A young actress, with a white robe and red bonnet and armed with the spear of knowledge, then passed down the aisle with the crowds chanting “Thou, Holy Liberty, come dwell in this temple, be the goddess of the French.” It was not long afterward that over 2,000 other churches in France were also “transformed” into Temples of Reason. In May 1794 an inscription was added to the front of Notre-Dame: “The French people recognize the Supreme Being and the immortality of the soul,” and “Temple of Reason” was then changed to become the “Temple of the Supreme Being.”
The End of the Terror
Eventually Robespierre went too far. He had been involved in the execution of many moderate Jacobins, and on July 27, 1794, in the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the French revolutionary month in which it happened, Robespierre and his leading aide, Louis- Antoine de Saint-Just, were both arrested and executed. A new government was then introduced. Known as the Directory, it consisted of a small group of five, similar to a political cabinet, who were chosen each year by the Conseil des Anciens (Council of Elders) made up of 250 senators, and the Conseil des Cinq-Cents (Council of the Five Hundred), made up of 500 representatives. It was the first bicameral legislature in French history and did much to calm the tensions that had arisen while Robes pierre was in power.
The Directory restored a semblance of law and order and also allowed many emigres to return. They were able to successfully combat military threats from the Austrians and the Prussians and also internal revolts in the Vendee region in coastal west-central France. When the British attacked Toulon in the south of France, an artillery commander, Napoleon Bonaparte, was able to encourage the French soldiers to eject the invaders. Bonaparte then was involved in the invasion of northern Italy and buoyed with his success there, where he defeated the Austrians and their allies, he went on his expedition to Egypt.
Although his forces on land managed to defeat the Turks and the Mamluks, the British under Horatio Nelson destroyed his fleet at Aboukir Bay. Soon afterward Napoleon left to return to France, where he became part of a plot to overthrow the Directory that took place on November 9, 1799 (18th Brumaire of the Year VIII), when he staged his coup of 18 Brumaire, seizing power and establishing the consulate, rule by three people, which eventually saw him becoming consul for life and, in 1804, emperor.
- Burley, Peter. Witness to the Revolution: British & American Despatches from France 1788–94. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989;
- Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution. New York: The Modern Library;
- Cobb, Richard C. The Police and the People: French Popular Protest 1789–1820. London: Oxford University Press, 1970;
- Kelly, Linda. Women of the French Revolution. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987;
- Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989;
- Thompson, J. M. Leaders of the French Revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962.