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            The French Revolution, 1789–1799

For many, the French Revolution came as a surprise. Although France had been declining
gradually for several decades, it remained the most important continental European state.
It was strong, populous, wealthy, and influential. However, it was beset with internal
difficulties, the most serious one being a maldistribution of wealth and power. Large
segments of the French population rejected the status quo, although few if any
Frenchmen advocated revolution.
   Like most eighteenth-century countries, France was agrarian. Peasants comprised
perhaps 80 percent of the population. Although French peasants were better off than
their counterparts in other European countries, they chafed under a system that required
them to pay the bulk of the taxes and that retained many of feudalism’s vestiges.
   Discontent among the French middle class, especially the merchants, matched that of
the peasants. Resentful of regulations that hindered trade and commerce, France’s middle
class desired a market-driven free economy. It also embraced other Enlightenment ideas
such as equality under the law and reform of the tax system. In short, the middle class
hoped to achieve social prestige and political influence equal to its growing wealth.
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            The execution of the French king Louis XVI on January 21, 1793,
            foreshadowed the onset of the French Revolution’s most radical
            phase, the Reign of Terror, which claimed thousands of lives.
            (Reproduced from the Collections of the Library of Congress)

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The town dwellers—and there were not many of them except in Paris, which had a
population of about 600,000—were restless as well. France’s artisans, small shopkeepers,
and day laborers were in a state of economic decline. During the 1780s, rising
unemployment and skyrocketing prices had only served to intensify their misery.
   The immediate cause of the Revolution was a fiscal crisis. France’s budget was badly
out of balance, and the country faced bankruptcy as expenditures far exceeded revenues.
Service on the national debt, which had soared as France bankrolled the American
Revolution, ate up 50 percent of the state’s income. Furthermore, the tax burden was
unevenly distributed; the nobility and the Roman Catholic Church were virtually exempt
from taxation.
   The French monarchy determined to resolve the crisis by taxing the nobility. Not
surprisingly, the nobility resisted. Many nobles flatly rejected the monarchy’s proposals;
others, influenced by the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, would consent to
taxation only if the king would share political power with them, an idea the monarchy
rejected. The nobility relied upon the parlements, or traditional law courts, to thwart the
monarch’s will. The nobles were unintentionally aided by the king himself. Louis XVI
was a weak and stupid ruler who regularly jettisoned reforming ministers and failed to
confront his insubordinate nobility.
  The stalemate between king and nobility was broken only when an increasingly
desperate Louis XVI decided to call into session the Estates General, an ancient French
assembly that had last met in 1614. Elections for the Estates General were held during the
winter of 1788–1789, and when it assembled at Versailles it had a decidedly moderate
character. In addition to representatives from the First Estate (the clergy) and the Second
Estate (the nobility), there were representatives of the Third Estate (the rest of the French
population). However, the representatives of the Third Estate were chiefly lawyers, and
they sought reform, not revolution.
  Almost immediately, the Estates General deadlocked over the question of whether to
vote by estate (thereby giving those in favor of the status quo a two to one majority) or to
vote by head (thereby giving those in favor of reform a majority). As usual, the king
vacillated. As the controversy deepened, the Third Estate first proclaimed itself the
National Assembly, and then in the Tennis Court Oath declared that it would not disband
until France had a constitution. This was a revolutionary act, and the king prepared to
summon troops to disperse the Estates General.
  At this juncture, the common people weighed in. On July 14, 1789,

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riotous Parisians seized the Bastille, an ancient prison fortress, and effectively wrested
control of the city from royal authority. Similar disturbances, known as the Great Fear,
swept the countryside. Peasants attacked the nobility’s châteaux, frequently destroying
records that registered their obligations to the lord of the land.
   As the situation spun out of control and the king dithered, on August 4 the Estates
General declared the end of feudalism in France. Three weeks later it issued the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which began with the stirring
proclamation that ‘‘men are born free and equal in rights.’’
   Faced with a growing crisis, the king finally roused himself. He quietly began to
assemble loyal troops with the intention of disbanding the Estates General once and for
all. However, once again the common people intervened. On October 4, a crowd
consisting mainly of Parisian women marched to Versailles, rioted, and forced the royal
household to accompany it back to Paris, where the king became its virtual prisoner. The
Estates General, or rather National Assembly, also relocated from Versailles to Paris,
where it gradually came under the capital’s influence.
   Nevertheless, from October 1789 until September 1791 the National Assembly steered
a moderate course, reshaping France into a constitutional monarchy with guarantees of
equality under the law. Although the king retained considerable power, the right to make
laws passed to a legislative chamber elected on the basis of a limited suffrage. Civil rights
were established, and new taxes on land and business income replaced the bewildering
and unfair system that had frustrated so many Frenchmen. A laissez-faire approach to
economics was adopted, which did not please the urban poor, and the Civil Constitution
of the Clergy subordinated the powerful Roman Catholic Church to the state. Coming
upon the confiscation of Church lands, the Civil Constitution outraged the papacy, which
ordered French Catholics to oppose it, thereby dividing French society.
  The National Assembly completed its work in October 1791 and gave way to the
Legislative Assembly, the newly elected French parliament. Expected to last indefinitely,
the Legislative Assembly disappeared in less than a year as the level of discontent in
France rose dramatically. France became polarized, and the middle or moderate center
was eclipsed.
  Many Frenchmen, including the royal household, the nobility, the upper levels of the
bureaucracy, the officer corps, and devout Roman Catholics, opposed the changes that
had taken place. The king himself validated this opposition when he made a clumsy and
unsuccessful at-

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tempt to flee France in June 1791. This incident, known as the Flight to Varennes, ended
with the king’s forced return to Paris. Louis XVI was now a discredited figure in the eyes
of all but the most conservative Frenchmen.
   Confronting the conservatives, a growing radical movement worked to extend the
Revolution. Motivated in part by personal ambition, the radicals congregated in political
clubs, especially the Jacobin Clubs that became synonymous with the most radical phase
of the French Revolution. The radicals also enlisted the Parisian crowd, first to gain
power and then to tighten their grip on it.
   International considerations played a major role in changing the Revolution’s
direction. A steady stream of French aristocrats fled the country and took up residence at
foreign capitals throughout Europe. These émigrés denounced the Revolution and tried to
enlist the support of their hosts. However, even though Europe’s royal courts loathed the
Revolution, they shied away from any attempt to destroy it.
   But the French political extremes welcomed the prospect of war. The conservatives
saw war as a win-win situation. If France lost, then the Revolution would be defeated; if
France won, then the king and the aristocratic army could claim victory and more easily
move against the Revolution themselves. The radicals believed that war would
demonstrate the unreliability of the conservatives and the ineffectiveness of the
moderates, thus preparing the way for the radicals to take over. Moreover, the Jacobins,
led by the Girondist faction, had concluded that only the spread of the Revolution to other
countries could make it safe within France. They saw war as a way to rouse the rest of
Europe to revolution. Consequently, it was France that declared war on Austria in April
   The war went poorly for France; however, the fact that its opponents—Austria and its
ally, Prussia—were actually rivals and deeply suspicious of each other saved France from
utter disaster. Meanwhile, the Jacobins prepared to seize power. Throughout the summer
of 1792 they worked to gain the trust of the Paris crowd, and in early August the mob
erupted. It attacked the Tuileries, the royal residence, and forced the royal family to flee
for their lives. Using the mob as its instrument of force, the Jacobins took over the capital
and established a commune, or revolutionary municipal administration. The commune
soon exercised supreme authority. It rejected the constitution, dismissed the Legislative
Assembly, and called for elections to a National Convention to draw up a new and more
radical constitution. At the same time, hysteria swept the capital, culminating in the
September Massacres, when more than a thousand opponents of revolution were lynched.
In this atmosphere, the

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elections to the National Assembly returned a strong radical majority backed by the
might of the Parisian mob.
   First meeting in September 1792, the National Convention declared France a republic.
Shortly thereafter it tried Louis XVI for treason and executed the hapless monarch in
January 1793. It also declared its intention to spread the Revolution beyond France, a step
that alarmed the rest of Europe.
   In April 1793 the Convention created the Committee of Public Safety to carry out the
duties of government. Consisting of twelve men working in secret, the Committee of
Public Safety instituted what is commonly known as the Reign of Terror. Officially
designed to combat the ‘‘counterrevolution’’ in France, the Reign of Terror really served
to rid the Jacobins of any real or potential rivals. And when Jacobin unity shattered, it
was used by one radical faction to eliminate other radical factions. The Reign of Terror
also claimed a number of social misfits such as prostitutes, although most of its victims
were simple peasants and workers. Getting under way in summer 1793, the Reign of
Terror claimed about 40,000 victims by the time it was dismantled in July 1794.
   During this most radical phase of the Revolution, power passed to a handful of extreme
revolutionaries, the most famous being Maximilien Robespierre, a provincial lawyer who
was both incorruptible and a fanatic for ‘‘virtue.’’ Other important leaders included Jean-
Paul Marat, a firebrand journalist, and George Danton, who organized the defense of the
regime and was later executed by his fellow radicals.
   In addition to raining terror down on the French population, the Reign of Terror also
transformed French society. Under the April 1793 Law of the Maximum, the
revolutionaries imposed price controls, although paradoxically most of the leadership
continued to uphold the doctrine of laissez-faire. A new calendar was introduced, with
1792 being designated as Year I and the names of the months changed to reflect the
passing of the seasons. Of more lasting importance was the introduction of the metric
system to replace the traditional (and chaotic) systems of weights and measures. Styles
changed as well. Men abandoned the aristocrat’s knee breeches in favor of the common
man’s trousers, and women dressed in styles reminiscent of republican Rome or
democratic Athens. There was also a concerted attack on Christianity. The
revolutionaries substituted ‘‘temples of reason’’ for churches, and Robespierre tried to
bridge the gap between believer and nonbeliever by declaring that Frenchmen should
worship a ‘‘Supreme Being.’’
   Faced with an Austro-Prussian invading force now supported by Great Britain,
Holland, Spain, and Portugal, the revolutionaries introduced the

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levée en masse, or conscription. Many other civilians were put to work on projects
designed to protect France from its external enemies. By the spring of 1794, the army of
revolutionary France counted 800,000 men and represented a nation in arms. This army’s
high morale and the divisions that plagued its opponents led to a series of French
victories in summer 1794 that lifted the threat to the republic’s existence.
   Meanwhile, the Terror ground on, now condemning some of its most ardent supporters
to the guillotine. This provoked a reaction, and on July 27, 1794, Robespierre, the living
embodiment of the radical phase of the French Revolution, was executed.
   What followed is known in history as the Thermidorian Reaction, named after the
month in the new calendar (Thermidor) when Robespierre was overthrown. Many of
those who replaced Robespierre and his friends were former Jacobins who now yearned
for stability and a more moderate course. They repealed many of the National
Convention’s more radical measures and in 1795 introduced a new constitution for
France. Through the imposition of property qualifications, this constitution guaranteed
that those who sat in the legislature would be men of means and thus ‘‘responsible.’’ Any
thought of reviving the monarchy was quashed, and executive power was turned over to a
five-man board of directors, thereby giving rise to the term ‘‘Directory,’’ which describes
this period in French history. However, the Directory proved transitory. Characterized by
corruption, political paralysis, and a failure to end the war that had entangled France
since 1792, the Directory fell victim to a coup d'état in November 1799 featuring the
ambitious young military figure, Napoleon Bonaparte.

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