1. Education

French Revolution 101

By

French Revolution 101

The Death of Louis XVI

Library of Congress

What was the French Revolution?:

Between 1789 and 1802 France was wracked by a revolution which radically changed the government, administration, military and culture of the nation as well as plunging Europe into a series of wars. France went from a largely 'feudal' state under an absolutist monarch, through the French Revolution to a republic which executed the king and then to an empire under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Pictures of the French Revolution

When was the French Revolution?:

Although historians are agreed that the French Revolution started in 1789 they are divided on the end date. A few histories stop in 1795 with the creation of the Directory, some stop in 1799 with the creation of the Consulate, while many more stop in 1802 when Napoleon Bonaparte became Consul for Life or 1804 when he became Emperor. A rare few continue to the restoration of the monarchy in 1814. This site prefers 1802.

When did the French Revolution End?

The French Revolution in Brief:

A medium term financial crisis, caused partly by French involvement in the American Revolutionary War, led to the French crown first calling an Assembly of Notables and then, in 1789, a meeting called the Estates General in order to gain assent for new tax laws. The Estates General was composed of three ‘Estates’: the clergy, the nobility and the rest of France. This 'Third Estate', informed by long term doubts over the constitution of France and the development of a new social order of bourgeoisie, declared itself a National Assembly and decreed the suspension of tax, taking French sovereignty into its own hands.

After a power struggle which saw the National Assembly take the Tennis Court Oath not to disband, the king gave in and the Assembly began reforming France, scrapping the old system and drawing up a new constitution with a Legislative Assembly. This continued the reforms, but it created divisions in France by legislating against the church and declaring war on nations which supported the French king. In 1792 a second revolution took place, as Jacobins and sansculottes forced the Assembly to replace itself with a National Convention which abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic and in 1793 executed the king.

As the Revolutionary Wars went against France, as regions angry at attacks on the church and conscription rebelled and as the revolution became increasingly radicalised the National Convention created a Committee of Public Safety to run France in 1793. After a struggle between political factions called the Girondins and the Montagnards was won by the latter, an era of bloody measures called The Terror began, when over 16,000 people were guillotined. In 1794 the revolution again changed, this time turning against the Terror and its architect Robespierre. The Terrorists were removed in a coup and a new constitution drawn up which created, in 1795, a new legislative system run by a Directory of five men.

This remained in power thanks to rigging elections and purging the assemblies before being replaced, thanks to the army and a general called Napoleon Bonaparte, by a new constitution in 1799 which created three consuls to rule France. Bonaparte was the first consul and, while the reform of France continued, Bonaparte managed to bring the revolutionary wars to a close and have himself declared consul for life. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France; the revolution was over, the empire had begun.

Want more? Read our full length History of the French Revolution.
The French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The Origins of the French Revolution in the Ancien Régime

Consequences of the French Revolution:

There is universal agreement that the political and administrative face of France was wholly altered: a republic based around elected – mainly bourgeois - deputies replaced a monarchy supported by nobles while the many and varied feudal systems were replaced by new, usually elected institutions which were applied universally across France. Culture was also affected, at least in the short term, with the revolution permeating every creative endeavour. However, there is still debate over whether the revolution permanently changed the social structures of France or whether they were only altered in the short term.
Europe was also changed. The revolutionaries of 1792 began a war which extended through the Imperial period and forced nations to marshal their resources to a greater extent than ever before. Some areas, like Belgium and Switzerland, became client states of France with reforms similar to those of the revolution. National identities also began coalescing like never before. The many and fast developing ideologies of the revolution were also spread across Europe, helped by French being the continental elite’s dominant language. The French Revolution has often been called the start of the modern world, and while this is an exaggeration – many of the supposed ‘revolutionary’ developments had precursors – it was an epochal event that permanently changed the European mindset. Patriotism, devotion to the state instead of the monarch, mass warfare, all became solidified in the modern mind.

The Consequences of the French Revolution

Key People:

- King Louis XVI: King of France when the revolution began in 1789, he was executed in 1792.
- Emmanuel Sieyès: Deputy who helped radicalise the third estate and instigated the coup which brought the consuls to power.
- Jean-Paul Marat: Popular journalist who advocated extreme measures against traitors and hoarders. Assassinated in 1793.
- Maximilien Robespierre: Lawyer who went from advocating an end to the death penalty to the architect of the Terror. Executed in 1794.
- Napoleon Bonaparte: French general whose rise to power brought the revolution to an end.
Related Video
French Bleu Cheese Sauce
French Ham and Olive Bread

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.