French Revolution

French Revolution, political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789.

Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.

France was still governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt. For the most part, peasants were small landholders or tenant farmers, subject to feudal dues, to the royal agents indirect farming (collecting) taxes, to the corvée (forced labor), and to tithes and other impositions. Backward agricultural methods and internal tariff barriers caused recurrent food shortages, which netted fortunes to grain speculators, and rural overpopulation created land hunger.

In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Voltaire attacked the church and absolutism; Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de Montesquieu made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de Condorcet preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. Rousseau, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocrats and attempted (1774–76) by A. R. J. Turgot, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.

The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques Necker vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.

The Estates-General and the National Assembly

Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne succeeded Calonne. His attempts to procure money were thwarted by the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), and King Louis XVI was forced to agree to the calling of the States-General. Elections were ordered in 1788, and on May 5, 1789, for the first time since 1614, the States-General met at Versailles. The chief purpose of the king and of Necker, who had been recalled, was to obtain the assembly's consent to a general fiscal reform.

Each of the three estates—clergy, nobility, and the third estate, or commons—presented its particular grievances to the crown. Innumerable cahiers (lists of grievances) came pouring in from the provinces, and it became clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the States-General. The aspirations of the bourgeoisie were expressed by Abbé Sieyès in a widely circulated pamphlet that implied that the third estate and the nation were virtually identical. The question soon arose whether the estates should meet separately and vote by order or meet jointly and vote by head (thus assuring a majority for the third estate, whose membership had been doubled).

As Louis XVI wavered, the deputies of the third estate defiantly proclaimed themselves the National Assembly (June 17); on their invitation, many members of the lower clergy and a few nobles joined them. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, the jeu de paume, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27 the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly. At the same time, however, he surrounded Versailles with troops and let himself be persuaded by a court faction, which included the queen, Marie Antoinette, to dismiss (July 11) Necker.

The Revolution of 1789

Parisians mobilized, and on July 14 stormed the Bastille fortress. Louis XVI meekly recalled Necker and went to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where he accepted the tricolor cockade of the Revolution from the newly formed municipal government, or commune. The national guard was organized under the marquis de Lafayette. This first outbreak of violence marked the entry of the popular classes into the Revolution. Mobilized by alarm over food shortages and economic depression, by hopes aroused with the calling of the States-General, and by the fear of an aristocratic conspiracy, peasants pillaged and burned châteaus, destroying records of feudal dues; this reaction is known as the grande peur [great fear].

On Aug. 4, the nobles and clergy in the Assembly, driven partly by fear and partly by an outburst of idealism, relinquished their privileges, abolishing in one night the feudal structure of France. Shortly afterward, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Rumors of counterrevolutionary court intrigues circulated, and on Oct. 5, 1789, a Parisian crowd, aroused by rising food prices, marched to Versailles and brought the king and queen, "the baker and the baker's wife," back to the Tuileries palace in Paris. The Assembly also removed to Paris, where it drafted a constitution. Completed in 1791, the constitution created a limited monarchy with a unicameral legislature elected by voters with property qualifications.

Of gravest consequence were the Assembly's antireligious measures. Church lands were nationalized (1789), religious orders suppressed (1790), and the clergy required (July, 1790) to swear to adhere to the state-controlled Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only a bare majority (52%) of all priests took the oath; disturbances broke out, especially in W France; and Louis XVI, though forced to assent, was roused to action. Numerous princes and nobles had already fled abroad (see émigré); Louis decided to join them and to obtain foreign aid to restore his authority. The flight (June 20–21, 1791) was halted at Varennes, and the king and queen were brought back in humiliation. Louis accepted the constitution.

Factionalism and War

On Oct. 1, 1791, the Legislative Assembly convened. Some members joined the various political clubs of Paris, such as the Feuillants and Jacobins. Most deputies were middle-of-the-roaders, swayed by the more radical clubs and by the Girondists. Jacobinism was gaining in this period; "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" became a catch phrase.

Meanwhile abroad, early sympathy for the Revolution was turning to hatred. Émigrés incited the courts of Europe to intervene; in France, war was advocated by the royalists as a means to restore the old regime, but also by many republicans, who either wished to spread the revolution abroad or hoped that the threat of invasion would rally the nation to their cause. The Feuillant, or right-wing, ministers fell and were succeeded by those later called Girondists. On Apr. 20, 1792, war was declared on Austria, and the French Revolutionary Wars began. Early reverses and rumors of treason by the king again led Parisian crowds to direct action.

The Revolution of 1792

An abortive insurrection of June 20, 1792, was followed by a decisive one on Aug. 10, when a crowd stormed the Tuileries and an insurrectionary commune replaced the legally elected one (see Commune of Paris). Under pressure from the commune, the Assembly suspended Louis XVI and ordered elections by universal manhood suffrage for a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. Mass arrests of royalist sympathizers were followed by the September massacres (Sept. 2–7), in which frenzied mobs entered jails throughout Paris and killed approximately 2,000 prisoners, many in grisly fashion.

The Republic

On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention held its first meeting. It immediately abolished the monarchy, set up the republic, and proceeded to try the king for treason. His conviction and execution (Jan., 1793) reinforced royalist resistance, notably in the Vendée, and, abroad, contributed to the forming of a wider coalition against France. The Convention undertook the foreign wars with vigor but was itself torn by the power struggle between the Girondists and the Mountain (Jacobins and extreme left). The Girondists were purged in June, 1793. A democratic constitution was approved by 1.8 million voters in a plebiscite, but it never came into force.

The Reign of Terror

Instead of a democracy the Convention established a war dictatorship operating through the Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, and numerous agencies such as the Revolutionary Tribunal. Known to history as the Reign of Terror, this period represented the efforts of a few men to govern the country and wage war in a time of crisis. Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre dominated the new government, with Robespierre gradually gaining over Danton and others. Price and wage maximums were unevenly enforced, and acceptance of the inflated paper currency, the assignats, was made mandatory. A huge number of suspects were arrested; thousands were executed, including Marie Antoinette. A revolutionary calendar, with 10-day weeks, was adopted.

The fanatic Jacques Hébert, who had introduced the worship of a goddess of Reason, was arrested and executed in Mar., 1794, along with other so-called ultrarevolutionaries. The next month Danton and his followers, the "Indulgents," who advocated relaxation of emergency measures, were executed. To counter Hébertist influence, Robespierre proclaimed (June, 1794) the cult of the Supreme Being. France's military successes lessened the need for strong domestic measures, but Robespierre called for new purges. Fearing that the Terror would be turned against them, members of the Convention arrested Robespierre on July 27, 1794 (see Thermidor), and had him guillotined; a majority of Commune members were also executed.

The Directory and the Coming of Napoleon

The Convention drew up a new constitution, setting up the Directory and a bicameral legislature. The constitution went into effect after the royalist insurrection of Vendémiaire (Oct., 1795) had been put down by armed force. The rule of the Directory was marked by corruption, financial difficulties, political purges, and a fateful dependence on the army to maintain control. Conflict among the five directors led to the coup of 18 Fructidor (Sept. 4, 1797).

Discontent with Directory rule was increased by military reverses. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, the hero of the Italian campaign, returned from his Egyptian expedition and, with the support of the army and several government members, overthrew the Directory on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9) and established the Consulate. Until the Restoration of the Bourbons (1814), Napoleon (see Napoleon I) ruled France.

Effects of the Revolution

The French Revolution, though it seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified by 1815, had far-reaching results. In France the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code Napoléon. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare.

Although some historians view the Reign of Terror as an ominous precursor of modern totalitarianism, others argue that this ignores the vital role the Revolution played in establishing the precedents of such democratic institutions as elections, representative government, and constitutions. The failed attempts of the urban lower middle classes to secure economic and political gains foreshadowed the class conflicts of the 19th cent. While major historical interpretations of the French Revolution differ greatly, nearly all agree that it had an extraordinary influence on the making of the modern world.


See the older works by Guizot, Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis Blanc, Edgar Quinet, and H. A. Taine; the great modern studies by Alphonse Aulard, Albert Mathiez, and Georges Lefebvre; the diplomatic history by Albert Sorel; the socialist interpretation of Jean Jaurès; P. Gaxotte, The French Revolution (1928), a royalist account.

See also J. M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1945); N. Hampson, A Social History of the French Revolution (1963); W. Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989); S. Schama, Citizens (1989); R. Cobb, The French and Their Revolution (1999); D. Andress, The Terror (2006); T. Tackett, The Coming of Terror in the French Revolution (2015).

On the historiography of the French Revolution, see P. Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins (1944, repr. 1963); D. Sutherland, France, 1789–1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (1986); and F. Furet and M. Ouzouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (tr. A. Goldhammer, 1989).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

French Revolution: Selected full-text books and articles

The Oxford History of the French Revolution By William Doyle Oxford University Press, 1990
Understanding the French Revolution By Albert Soboul International Publishers, 1988
The French Revolution, 1789-1799 By Peter McPhee Oxford University Press, 2002
From Deficit to Deluge: The Origins of the French Revolution By Thomas E. Kaiser; Dale K. Van Kley Stanford University Press, 2011
The French Revolution By Linda S. Frey; Marsha L. Frey Greenwood Press, 2004
Mourning Glory: The Will of the French Revolution By Marie-Hélène Huet University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997
The French Revolution By Owen Connelly; Fred Hembree Harlan Davidson, 1993
The French Revolution of 1789 and Its Impact By Gail M. Schwab; John R. Jeanneney Greenwood Press, 1995
The French Revolution: From Its Origins to 1793 By Georges Lefebvre; Elizabeth Moss Evanson Routledge, 2001
Origins of the French Revolution By William Doyle Oxford University Press, 1999 (3rd edition)
Cultures in Conflict: The French Revolution By Gregory S. Brown Greenwood Press, 2003
The French Revolution in Culture and Society By David G. Troyansky; Alfred Cismaru; Norwood Andrews Jr Greenwood Press, 1991
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