The French Revolution

french revolution-liberty

Causes of the French Revolution


  • Why do events happen when they happen?
  • What causes a society to revolt and overthrow a government?

There were many cause of the French Revolution.  Some of the causes were political.  The French Revolution was partly caused by an unfair political system with people in charge were not good rulers.  One way it was unfair was because France was ruled by King Louis XVI, an absolute monarch, who had all of the power.  Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette were inept rulers.  They censored criticism of their rule.

The other way it was unfair was because of the Estates General and how it worked.  The Estates General was a political council created by French kings to sometimes help to make political decisions (like Model Parliament in England).  Each Estate had one vote.  Unlike in Britain, where kings had to increasingly deal with Parliament as it developed, the French kings never called the Estates General into session.  So while it existed on paper, it never met.  In the few cases it did, the First and Second Estates always voted together.  So the Third Estate, which represented 97% of the French people, had no real political power.

There were also economic causes of the French Revolution.  While France was a wealthy country on the whole, a large portion of the population was struggling to survive.  Combined with this, the unfair taxes levied on the Third Estate also helped cause the French Revolution.  King Louis XVI’s government was bankrupt.  France was in debt because of the high cost of wars and the lavish lifestyle of King Louis and his court.  Louis asked the Second Estate for financial help.  The rich nobles didn’t want to pay Louis’ tax themselves and instead passed the cost of the tax onto the Third Estate by raising rents and other fees.  The unreasonable taxes (over 50% of the income for the Third Estate) made it even harder for the people to survive.

There were also problems in French society that helped cause the Revolution.  Most of the people in France lived a very poor life with no hope of improvement.   French society was rigidly divided into three groups called the Estates.  The First and Second Estates lived a lavish lifestyle with many privileges while the majority of the French population lived a miserable life. The First and Second Estate also went out of their way to mistreat the Third Estate, something that particularly offended the new middle class—or bourgeoisie—who felt that they should be treated as equals since they were wealthy too.

Another social cause was the emergence of the ideas of the Enlightenment, which caused people to question the government of Louis and demand more.  The Enlightenment idea of the Social Contract theory of government said that if government was not protecting peoples Natural Rights (life, liberty, and property), then the people have the right to revolt.  The French government was not even concerned with protecting these rights for most of the French people.  The bourgeoisie latched onto these ideas and passed these ideas along to the peasants.  The American Revolution served as an inspiration to the French people because the American colonists overthrew the British colonial government who kept them powerless.


Key Events of the French Revolution


  • Describe why the French people finally had enough and how they took out their frustration(s)
  • Outline the events that unfolded
  • Detail the radical phase of the revolution

The Estates General became the National Assembly.  The delegates for the Third Estate, who were mostly members of the bourgeoisie, wanted to reform—or change—the unfair system of voting and asked King Louis XVI to change it.  When Louis refused, the delegates for the Third Estate voted to rename themselves the National Assembly and proclaimed themselves the true government of France.  To try and stop this rebellion, the National Assembly was locked out of their meeting hall.  They moved their meeting to an indoor tennis court.  There they made the Tennis Court Oath a promise to create a new constitutional government that was a representative democracy like England.

Things would go to another level, with the mob in Paris’ storming of the Bastille.  The mood in Paris grew tense as Louis brought troops in, probably to crack down on—or use military force to stop—the National Assembly.  In a symbolic act of defiance, a mob attacked the Bastille on July 14, 1789.  The Bastille was a prison and a weapons depot—a place where weapons are stored.  Many of the people imprisoned at the Bastille were people unfairly put in jail for upsetting the king.  Bastille Day (July 14) is celebrated each year in France and is the equivalent of America’s Fourth of July.

After the Bastille, the Revolution began and the moderate phase of the French Revolution began.  King Louis XVI was forced to recognize the National Assembly, for the time being at least (he needed time to organize his troops if he wanted to crack down on the new government and angry mobs).  The National Assembly began making changes to French society, attempting to improve the problems that caused the Revolution.  One of the reforms the National Assembly enacted was to eliminate the special privileges of the First and Second Estate.

By doing this, they made commoners, clergy and nobles equal.  Another important change was the National Assembly’s adoption of a document called the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  This document, the most important thing to come out of Revolution, took the ideas of the Enlightenment and made them law in France.  The Declaration of the Rights of Man guaranteed citizens basic rights they didn’t have before the Revolution, such as equality (freedom of speech, etc).

As part of this, the National Assembly also took control of the Roman Catholic Church in France.  Church land was confiscated and sold.  Church positions became elected post, instead of being appointed by the Pope.  The National Assembly, in its new constitution—made France into a constitutional monarchy—a government in which the king rules with an elected, legislative body.  Louis was stripped of most of his power and the new Legislative Assembly made the laws.

Crises were putting pressure on the new government and it was struggling.  Eventually it would succumb to the people who demanded more change and the radical phase of the French Revolution began.  The problem was that the new government was being attacked  in three ways, allowing radicals—people who want to change everything—to take over the government.  Under this pressure, the National Assembly’s constitution was set aside and a new government called the National Convention took over that made even more radical changes.

One of the threats to the government that caused this change came from other countries.  France was at war with the Prussia (Germans) and Austria.  The absolute monarchs of both countries attacked France to try and help Louis squash the Revolution.  But France also had internal threats as some people—called reactionaries or royalists—wanted to go back to having a king.  Competing ideas of what should happen next also caused tension.

The new government (the National Convention) was a republic—there was no longer a king.  Louis had been removed from power.  Then things took a drastic turn when King Louis XVI and his family tried to escape France.  Louis and his family were put under house arrest.  To remove the treat of going back to having a king, the National Convention put Louis on trial for treason—committing crimes against your country—and found him (and his wife) guilty.  They were both executed at the guillotine.

The executions at the guillotine did not stop with the king and queen.  Fear of enemies within France led to the Reign of Terror.  Under Maximilien Robespierre, the Committee of Public Safety was established to protect the new government.  Anyone labeled an “enemy of the state” was jailed or executed at the guillotine.  Robespierre wanted to create a perfect society by eliminating anyone who stood in the way of his goal.  Over 16,000 Frenchmen were killed during the Reign of Terror.  Ironically, Robespierre was labeled an enemy of the Revolution, tried for treason and executed at the guillotine, ending the nightmare.  After Robespierre’s virtual dictatorship a new government had to be formed.  This one was called the Directory.  Even this government had trouble solving the economic problems that helped cause the Revolution.


See also:  Napoleon Bonaparte


The Impacts of the French Revolution


  • Describe how the French Revolution was a major turning point in world history

The French Revolution is a long, complicated story.  It began when the people rose up against the tyrannical rule of King Louis XVI in 1789.  But it didn’t lead to immediate improvement.  A carousel of governments attempted to take over, but they weren’t able to do any better at fixing the problems in France.  Then Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power, calming things down for a while, but ultimately creating more problems for France with his constant wars and his defeat.  All in all, the French Revolution, in the short term, was a period of turmoil and chaos.

After the first defeat of Napoleon, the leaders of European countries wanted to put things back to normal.  They held a series of meetings in Vienna, Austria, starting in 1814, to decide how to do this.  The meetings are called the Congress of Vienna.

Austrian Prince Klemens von Metternich hosted the meetings.  There were two key ideas that Metternich thought would help put things back to the way they were before the instability of the French Revolution.  The first was an attempt to try and keep peace.  The leaders attempted to create a balance of power.  The idea was that if all countries are roughly equal in power, they are less likely to fight.  Countries usually fight wars that they think they’ll win.

To create this balance, the Congress weakened France and strengthened her neighbors.  The leaders were also careful to not treat France too harshly so that it would seek revenge, thereby causing another war.  This was the mistake European leader made at the end of World War I when writing the Treaty of Versailles, punishing Germany for the war and creating a desire for revenge.  This caused World War II.

Another issue they attempted to solve was who should rule the countries of Europe.  Because Napoleon had unseated so many monarchs, deciding who should rule those countries now that they were independent again was a problem.  To make this decision, the leaders agreed to the principal of legitimacy—that the right, or legitimate, rulers should be the ones in charge before Napoleon removed them from power.  Putting a ruler back on their throne like this is called a restoration because they are “restored” to their throne.

The leaders wanted to create political stability after the chaos of the French Revolution.  The leaders at the Congress were all conservatives—politicians that don’t like change.  They opposed the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment and wanted to stop these ideas from spreading any further and causing revolutions.

Despite the Congress’ efforts, revolutions broke out in European colonies in Latin America and in Europe throughout the 1800’s.  In Europe, the rulers threatened by these revolutions were able to put down these rebellions and keep power.  As a result, these revolutions were unsuccessful in making any major changes, but the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment—natural rights, a government responsive to peoples’ needs, etc.—had come to be expected by people.

The balance of power established at the Congress of Vienna prompted—or started—a period of relative peace in Europe.  Although some minor conflicts did erupt, most of the European powers did not have another war until 1914, when World War I broke out.  The Congress of Vienna is also an early example of international cooperation—an attempt by countries to settle their differences without fighting a war.

But the ideals of the French Revolution were not dead.  They inspired other revolutions in Europe and abroad.  The French Revolution, along with the American Revolution before it, helped inspire other revolutions around the world.  It took the abstract ideas of the Enlightenment at took action on them.  This 1800’s is called the Age of Revolutions because many revolutions broke out both in Europe and in European colonies in Latin America as people stood up to poor governments.

One example of a region influenced by these ideas was Latin America.  In Latin America—particularly in Spain’s colonies—the rulers were not able to maintain control.  An unfair class system called the encomienda system was in place in the Spanish colonies.  There were several groups in the system, as follows:

  • Peninsulares were born in Spain and ruled the colonial government
  • Creoles were Spaniards born in Latin America (their parents were peninsulares); they were not allowed to have the best jobs
  • Mestizos were people with a Spanish parent and a Native American parent
  • Mulattoes had a Spanish parent and an African slaves as parents
  • African slaves were imported to work the Spaniards’ plantations
  • Native Americans were not useful to the Spanish due to the effects of European disease.

In this system, only peninsulares—people born in Spain—were able to have the top government job.  The Creoles, people whose parents were peninsulares—or people born in Spain—were unhappy with the system and used the other classes to start a revolution to get independence from Spain.  Revolutionary leaders in the Latin American Revolutions included Simon Bolivar—nicknamed the Liberator because he fought for independence for several Latin American countries (including the one named after him: Bolivia) and Jose de San Martin.

In Europe, the rulers threatened by these revolutions were able to put down these rebellions and keep power.  As a result, these revolutions were unsuccessful in making any major changes, but the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment—natural rights, a government responsive to peoples’ needs, etc.—had come to be expected by people.

The French Revolution helped strengthen another new idea.  Nationalism is the belief that all of the people of the same nation—which means a groups of people with a common culture, language and history—should live in their own country, being ruled by themselves.  Nationalism was strengthened two ways.  The first way was that the Revolution created a nationalist feeling within France, making the people feel more unified.

The other has to do with Napoleon.  As he took over other European peoples, Napoleon was at first welcomed as a liberator because he freed them from the harsh rule of absolute monarchs.  As time went on, Napoleon’s rule caused the conquered people to unify against him as they began to believe that they should rule themselves and not be controlled by someone different from them.

Finally, the French Revolution contributed to the growth of democracy.  While the change was not immediate, the French Revolution was an important step toward European countries ending absolute monarchy and becoming more democratic.  After the Revolution and Napoleon, despite the restoration of kings to their thrones, European countries—with the exception of Russia—became limited monarchies (governments in which the kings shares power with a legislature).  As time went on, European countries got away from having monarchs altogether.  They became representative democracies—governments ruled by representatives elected by the people.  For example, Kings were replaced by Prime Ministers—the title for the leader of many European governments—who are elected.


Practice Multiple-Choice Questions on the French Revolution

Before:  the Enlightenment     *     AFTER:  18th Century Nationalism

Comments are closed.