French Revolution

French Revolution
Prise de la Bastille.jpg
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789
Date5 May 1789 – 9 November 1799 (1789-05-05 – 1799-11-09)
(10 years, 6 months and 4 days)
LocationKingdom of France
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The French Revolution (French: Révolution française [ʁevɔlysjɔ̃ fʁɑ̃sɛːz]) was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies that lasted from 1789 until 1799. It was partially carried forward by Napoleon during the later expansion of the French Empire. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy, established a republic, catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil, and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon who brought many of its principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas, the Revolution profoundly altered the course of modern history, triggering the global decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies.[1] Through the Revolutionary Wars, it unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.[2][3][4]

The causes of the French Revolution are complex and are still debated among historians. Following the Seven Years' War and the American Revolution,[5] the French government was deeply in debt. It attempted to restore its financial status through unpopular taxation schemes, which were heavily regressive. Leading up to the Revolution, years of bad harvests worsened by deregulation of the grain industry also inflamed popular resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and the Catholic clergy of the established church. Some historians hold something similar to what Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: that France had "been awakened by our [American] Revolution."[6] Demands for change were formulated in terms of Enlightenment ideals and contributed to the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789. During the first year of the Revolution, members of the Third Estate (commoners) took control, the Bastille was attacked in July, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in August, and a women's march on Versailles that forced the royal court back to Paris in October. A central event of the first stage, in August 1789, was the abolition of feudalism and the old rules and privileges left over from the Ancien Régime.

The next few years featured political struggles between various liberal assemblies and right-wing supporters of the monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms. The Republic was proclaimed in September 1792 after the French victory at Valmy. In a momentous event that led to international condemnation, Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.

External threats closely shaped the course of the Revolution. The Revolutionary Wars beginning in 1792 ultimately featured French victories that facilitated the conquest of the Italian Peninsula, the Low Countries and most territories west of the Rhine – achievements that had eluded previous French governments for centuries. Internally, popular agitation radicalised the Revolution significantly, culminating in the rise of Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobins. The dictatorship imposed by the Committee of Public Safety during the Reign of Terror, from 1793 until 1794, established price controls on food and other items, abolished slavery in French colonies abroad, de-established the Catholic church (dechristianised society) and created a secular Republican calendar, religious leaders were expelled, and the borders of the new republic were secured from its enemies. Large numbers of civilians were executed by revolutionary tribunals during the Terror, with estimates ranging from 16,000 to 40,000, ranging from aristocrats to "suspected" enemies of the revolution.[7]

After the Thermidorian Reaction, an executive council known as the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795. They suspended elections, repudiated debt - resulting in financial instability, persecuted the Catholic clergy, and made significant military conquests abroad.[8] Dogged by charges of corruption, the Directory collapsed in a coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. Napoleon, who became the hero of the Revolution through his popular military campaigns, established the Consulate and later the First Empire, setting the stage for a wider array of global conflicts in the Napoleonic Wars.

The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution. Almost all future revolutionary movements looked back to the Revolution as their predecessor.[9] Its central phrases and cultural symbols, such as La Marseillaise and Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, became the clarion call for other major upheavals in modern history, including the Russian Revolution over a century later.[10]

The values and institutions of the Revolution dominate French politics to this day. The Revolution resulted in the suppression of the feudal system, emancipation of the individual, a greater division of landed property, abolition of the privileges of noble birth, and nominal establishment of equality among men. The French Revolution differed from other revolutions in being not only national, for it intended to benefit all humanity.[11]

Globally, the Revolution accelerated the rise of republics and democracies. It became the focal point for the development of all modern political ideologies, leading to the spread of liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, and secularism, among many others. The Revolution also witnessed the birth of total war by organising the resources of France and the lives of its citizens towards the objective of military conquest.[12] Some of its central documents, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, continued to inspire movements for abolitionism and universal suffrage in the next century.[13]


King Louis XVI's government was blamed for mishandling the fiscal crises in the 1780s.

Historians have pointed to many events and factors within the Ancien Régime that led to the Revolution. Rising social and economic inequality,[14][15] new political ideas emerging from the Enlightenment,[16] economic mismanagement, environmental factors leading to agricultural failure, unmanageable national debt,[17] and political mismanagement on the part of King Louis XVI have all been cited as laying the groundwork for the Revolution.[18][19][20][21]

Over the course of the 18th century, there emerged what the philosopher Jürgen Habermas called the idea of the "public sphere" in France and elsewhere in Europe.[22] Habermas argued that the dominant cultural model in 17th century France was a "representational" culture, which was based on a one-sided need to "represent" power with one side active and the other passive.[22] A perfect example would be the Palace of Versailles, which was meant to overwhelm the senses of the visitor and convince one of the greatness of the French state and Louis XIV.[22] Starting in the early 18th century the "public sphere" emerged which was "critical" in that both sides were active.[23] Examples of the public sphere included newspapers, journals, masonic lodges, coffee houses and reading clubs where people either in person or virtually via the printed word debated and discussed issues.[24] In France, the emergence of the public sphere outside of the control of the state led to the shift from Versailles to Paris as the cultural capital of France.[24] Likewise, while in the 17th century the court had decided what was culturally good and what was not, in the 18th century the opinion of the court mattered less and consumers became the arbiters of cultural taste.[25] In the 1750s, during the "Querelle des Bouffons" over the question of the quality of Italian vs. French music, the partisans of both sides appealed to the French public "because it alone has the right to decide whether a work will be preserved for posterity or will be used by grocers as wrapping-paper".[26] In 1782, Louis-Sébastien Mercier wrote: "The word court no longer inspires awe amongst us as in the time of Louis XIV. Reigning opinions are no longer received from the court; it no longer decides on reputations of any sort ... The court's judgments are countermanded; one says openly that it understands nothing; it has no ideas on the subject and could have none."[27] Inevitably, the belief that public opinion had the right to decide cultural questions instead of deferring to the court transformed itself into the demand that the public also have a say on political questions as well.[28]

The economy in the Ancien Régime during the years preceding the Revolution suffered from instability. The sequence of events leading to the Revolution included the national government's fiscal troubles caused by an inefficient tax system and expenditure on numerous large wars.[17] The attempt to challenge British naval and commercial power in the Seven Years' War was a costly disaster, with the loss of France's colonial possessions in continental North America and the destruction of the French Navy.[29] French forces were rebuilt, and feeling bitter about having lost many of France's overseas colonies to the British Empire during the Seven Years' War, Louis XVI was eager to give the American rebels financial and military support. After the British surrender at the Battle of Saratoga, the French sent 10,000 troops and millions of dollars to the rebels. Despite succeeding in gaining independence for the Thirteen Colonies, France was severely indebted by the American Revolutionary War.[citation needed] France's inefficient and antiquated financial system could not finance this debt.[30] Faced with a financial crisis, the king called an Estates General, recommended by the Assembly of Notables in 1787 for the first time in over a century.[31]

France was experiencing such a severe economic depression that there wasn't enough food to go around. Poor harvests lasting several years and an inadequate transportation system both contributed to making food more expensive.[32][33] As with most monarchies, the upper class was always insured a stable living, so while the rich remained very wealthy, the majority of the French population was starving. Many were so destitute that they couldn't even feed their families and resorted to theft or prostitution to stay alive. Meanwhile, the royal court at Versailles was isolated from and indifferent to the escalating crisis. While in theory King Louis XVI was an absolute monarch, in practice he was often indecisive and known to back down when faced with strong opposition. While he did reduce government expenditures, opponents in the parlements successfully thwarted his attempts at enacting much needed reforms. The Enlightenment had produced many writers, pamphleteers and publishers who could inform or inflame public opinion. The opposition used this resource to mobilise public opinion against the monarchy, which in turn tried to repress the underground literature.[30]

Many other factors involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals. These included resentment of royal absolutism; resentment by peasants, labourers and the bourgeoisie towards the traditional seigneurial privileges possessed by the nobility; resentment of the Catholic Church's influence over public policy and institutions; aspirations for freedom of religion; resentment of aristocratic bishops by the poorer rural clergy; aspirations for social, political and economic equality, and (especially as the Revolution progressed) republicanism; hatred of Queen Marie-Antoinette, who was falsely accused of being a spendthrift and an Austrian spy; and anger towards the King for dismissing ministers, including finance minister Jacques Necker, who were popularly seen as representatives of the people.[34]

Freemasonry played an important role in the revolution. Originally largely apolitical, Freemasonry was radicalised in the late 18th century through the introduction of higher grades, which emphasised themes of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Virtually every major player in the Revolution was a Freemason and these themes became the widely recognised slogan of the revolution.[35]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Franse Rewolusie
Bân-lâm-gú: Hoat-kok Kek-bēng
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Француская рэвалюцыя
brezhoneg: Dispac'h Gall
Fiji Hindi: French Revolution
한국어: 프랑스 혁명
Bahasa Indonesia: Revolusi Perancis
interlingua: Revolution francese
Interlingue: Francés Revolution
Basa Jawa: Revolusi Prancis
къарачай-малкъар: Уллу француз революция
Kreyòl ayisyen: Revolisyon franse
Lëtzebuergesch: Franséisch Revolutioun
Bahasa Melayu: Revolusi Perancis
Nederlands: Franse Revolutie
oʻzbekcha/ўзбекча: Buyuk fransuz inqilobi
Qaraqalpaqsha: Fransuz ko'terilisi
Simple English: French Revolution
slovenščina: Francoska revolucija
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Francuska revolucija
vepsän kel’: Sur' francine revolücii
Tiếng Việt: Cách mạng Pháp
Lingua Franca Nova: Revolui Franses