Last Updated on March 29, 2021 by Claude Boucher
The French Revolution (1789-1799) is one of the most remembered revolutions throughout history, known for its violence and bloodshed to the nobility. The Revolution was partially fueled by French victories against the British Monarchy across the world; in part, the French were influenced by the ideologies promoted during the American Revolution. The French Revolution was a radical shift away from monarchy and towards a Democratic Republic. Other “revolutions” fueled the French Revolution as well, though these revolutions were both thought-based. The Scientific Revolution, which spread around Europe during the 18th century, influenced the French Revolution. Similarly, the Enlightenment, a revolution of political philosophy, gave rise to new ideas of democracy and natural rights, building the very foundation of the French Revolution.
Alongside these Revolutions, a rivalry with Britain had put France in financial trouble. Britain and France were the two of the major powers of imperial Europe, and thus had many globalized wars throughout colonization. These included the Seven Years War (arguably one of the first world wars) and several wars in the British colonies in Asia, particularly India. Despite this, Louis XVI (1724-1793), the monarch of France, still spent a ridiculous amount of money on the nobility’s eccentric partying habits. One example of this unrelenting spending was the rise of bread prices. To solve this problem, which mainly affected the bourgeois, Louis XVI increased the peasants’ taxes. The money collected from the peasants circulated in the upper class and nobility, impoverishing the bourgeois at the expense of the nobility. Eventually, Louis XVI’s advisors developed a universal land tax, allowing nobles to be taxed as well. However, the damage was already done.
Two years of drought and bad harvesting wreaked havoc on France’s economy, mostly on the agricultural sector. This devastated the French social structure because the nobility depended on receiving a portion of crops from the peasantry. Three “estates” defined this social structure. The First Estate was made of the clergy or religious leaders; the Second Estate consisted of the nobility, or the elite class; and the Third Estate was made of the peasants, those who were oppressed by the system. The Third Estate, which made up a vast majority of the population could be further divided into more complex social classes, but the monarchy collectively called them the Third Estate. The highest social classes in the Third Estate, called the aristocrats, were the ones who fueled the rebellion against the monarchy.
The talk of rebellion caused Louis XVI to call the Estates-General, which had not been done in well over a century. The Estates-General was a mass meeting of representatives from each of the three estates. For the First and Second Estate, the Estates-General was an opportunity to flex their power over the Third Estate. Each estate was given a single vote in the Estates-General, and the few people in those estates held all the power for the entire state of France. This angered the Third Estate, causing the formation of the National Assembly. A group of representatives from the Third Estate gathered in a tennis court across the street from the palace. There, they took the Tennis Court Oath, officially forming the National Assembly. On July 14th, 1789, the National Assembly organized a raid of the Hôtel des Invalides (a housing complex for active military personnel and veterans of war) to gain rifles and war supplies. This same day, the National Assembly organized the Storming of Bastille, where they collected gunpowder for the rifles obtained from the Hôtel des Invalides.
Bastille was an old building that served as a detainment center for those who spoke out against the government; prominent Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire often found themselves within its halls at one point or another. When it was stormed, the Bastille held seven prisoners, two of which were declared official madmen. The battle claimed 18 lives as the National Assembly stormed the building, taking out 7 guards. 73 were left wounded at the end of the battle. This moment in the revolution was one of the most impactful since the Bastille acted as a symbol of the monarchy and their absolute power over the people of France. Because of this day, the French celebrate Bastille Day on July 14th as a memory of their fight for independence.
By August 1789, the National Assembly abolished feudalism in the state of France. In doing so, they published The Declaration of the Rights of Man. This document provided the basis of the French Republic, developed under the National Assembly: the Declaration of the Rights of Man used the slogan “liberté, egalité, fraternité” (liberty, equality, brotherhood) as its main message. The biggest group formed by the National Assembly was the National Guard. Later, this would provide the opportunity for Napoléon Bonaparte to take the French state under his control. The National Assembly also created the Committee for Safety. This committee, headed by Maximillien Robspierre, ruled over the Reign of Terror, where nobles and priests were beheaded by the thousands. Nobility was seen as the ultimate threat to the Republic of France, so the revolutionaries wanted to eradicate the social class by eliminating those within it.
Louis XVI was executed by guillotine on January 21st, 1793. Another famous execution was that of Marie Antionette. As the Queen of France (and daughter of the Austrian King), she was perhaps the most disconnected of the nobility. In fact, the bourgeois often referred to her as Madame Deficit, referring to her outrageous spending on dresses and partying. This disconnect is often cited as one of the major reasons for her beheading (which led to war with Austria). Legend has it before her execution she said: “Qu’ils mangent la brioche” which translates to “Let them eat the brioche.” Sometimes, it is incorrectly translated to “Let them eat cake.”
As a whole, the French Revolution was one of the defining moments in world history. Alongside its global influence, the Revolution also consolidated the idea that a nation was not a group of subjects under a monarch but of citizens, united under one culture or group of cultures. In the end, the bloodshed and violence gave rise to the beautiful country many people now call home and spread their unique culture throughout every single continent.