French Revolution and Napoleon summaries



French Revolution and Napoleon summaries


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French Revolution and Napoleon summaries


French Revolution and Napoleon Test ID’s

Outbreak of the Revolution

  • Atlantic Revolutions – these revolutions inspired the French revolution (Dutch, Belgian, and Polish revolution, as well as the American); however, the French revolution was much different than these, as it was on a much bigger scale and much more violent
  • Estates General – Louis XVI called for a new land tax which taxed everyone regardless of social status; well this pissed off the clergy (First Estate) and the nobility (Second Estate); the nobles demanded the meeting of the Estates General (the only legislative body, which has the power to change tax laws); the king eventually caved in and agreed to allow the Estates General to meet; the last time it met was in 1614 so no one knows how it works; the kings says bring a cahiers de doléances (a notebook of grievances) and they will talk about it; the Third Estate was angry because of the voting system (First and Second Estate ganged up on them, as the voting was the voting by social status, not by head count); Third Estate refuses to meet with the Estates General until the voting method is changed and all the Estates are allowed to meet together and declares themselves the National Assembly; the King locks the Third Estate out of the meeting room
  • Louis XVI – the king at the time of the outbreak of the French Revolution
  • Marie Antoinette – the queen at the time of the outbreak of the Revolution; disliked due to her large spending while France was in a time of crisis; almost killed by a mob of angry women; ultimately beheaded
  • pamphleteers – a person who creates or distributes pamphlets, which often contain very controversial ideas of the writer; pamphleteering was popular during the Revolution and pamphleteers often ended up in jail for their controversial ideas
  • National Assembly – the king eventually agreed to dissolve the Estate General and recognized the National Assembly as more nobles and clergy joined them; dominated by bourgeoisie; 
  • Great Fear – rumors were spreading that the peasants were going to steal from the peasants start a panic among the peasants; in response to these rumors the peasants butchered the nobility
  • Bastille – July 14, 1789: Storming of the Bastille; the Bastille held prisoners who were critics of the monarchy and thus it was considered a symbol of the King’s tyranny; the storming of the Bastille was a response to the rumor that the king was trying to reestablish the absolute monarchy by militarily scattering the National Assembly as well as the food shortage due to bad harvests; in order to defend themselves against the royal army, crowds gathered in front of the Bastille demanding that if they received the weapons inside the garrisons would be safe; well the garrisons let them through however they eventually got their heads chopped off which were paraded around on pikes;  the crowds tore the prison down brick by brick, which symbolized tearing down the tyranny of the king; in response to this Louis XVI organized the National Guard, which was under the leadership of Marquis de Lafayette and recognized the Commune of Paris (a new municipal government which would come into play in the latter stages of the Revolution)
  • “Tennis Court Oath” – the Third Estate/National Assembly refuses to disband until they create a new constitution; Third Estate considers themselves sovereign; some of the clergy and the nobility joined them for this
  • Jacques Necker – Louis XVI’s finance minister up until 1789 when he was dismissed for trying to tax the nobility and clergy
  • Marquis de Lafayette – named the leader of the National Guard by Louis XVI; in response to the storming of the Bastille; a prominent Frenchman who fought in the American Revolution

The Constitutional Monarchy and the Creation of the Republic

  • August 4, 1789 – the date of the Declaration of the Rights of Man
  • Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen – declared that power didn’t rest in the hands of the monarchy, but in the hands of the nation at large; a preamble to the French constitution drew up by the deputies in the National Assembly; it granted religious freedom, freedom of the press, equality of taxation, and equality before the law; it pronounced all men free and equal, which created the problem of what about women, black men, Protestants, Jews, etc.
  • Olympe de Gouges – wrote the Rights of Women in 1791 in response to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, which said that only men are free and equal; in this she argued that women should be allowed to enjoy fundamental rights such as the right to be educated, to control their own property, and to initiate divorce; however, she didn’t demand full political rights for women
  • départements – a change under the constitutional monarchy; the National Assembly replaced all administrative divisions of provinces with the new system of départements with identical administrative and legal structures
  • Civil Constitution of the Clergy – a legislation which essentially made the church a department of state; parish priests were elected by parishioners and bishops were elected by parish priests; clergy’s salaries were paid by the state and the clergy had to swear an oath of loyalty to the French state to uphold this constitution; the National Assembly also confiscated all church property; in response to this, Pope Pius VI denounced the French Revolution
  • assignats – new paper money issued by the government
  • “Flight to Varennes” – Louis didn’t really enjoy the new limitations on his power; so he hoped to rally support against the revolution from Marie Antoinette’s brother, the emperor of Austria, Leopold II; the royal family managed to escape Paris in disguise; however, they were arrested at the town of Varennes (40 miles from the Austrian border) because a man recognized him from the depictions on the new assignats; the National Assembly tried to depict this as a kidnapping, but now the general public considered Louis and the rest of the royal family to be traitors
  • Legislative Assembly – the new legislative governing body once the French constitution was completed; replaced the National Assembly; voted on by men who met the wealth qualifications
  • Brunswick Manifesto – during the war with Austria and Prussia, a Prussian commander, the duke of Brunswick issued a manifesto, which stated that if any harm can to the royal family he would destroy Paris; this essentially confirmed that the king was a traitor
  • sans-culottes – the ordinary people of Paris; known as the sans-culottes (without breeches) because they wore long pants as opposed to the knee breeches that the upper class wore
  • Jacobin Club – a political club where men and women listened to news and discussed their opinions; eventually became the ruling political club under the National Convention
  • National Convention – after the san-culottes attacked the Tuileries Palace, where the king resided, the Legislative Assembly called for a new election with universal male suffrage (unlike the last election where there were wealth qualifications); the National Convention was to write a new constitution; the National Convention abolished the monarchy on September 22, 1792 and established the first republic in French history
  • “September Massacres” – after the creation of the French republic, the Prussians approached Paris; in response to this the common people raided the jails and killed anyone who might try to help the enemy, many were completely innocent people
  • Girondins – one of the two divisions of the Jacobin Club; named after the département in southwestern France, Gironde, which provided some of the Jacobin Club’s leading orators; they resented the growing power of the Parisian militants and tried to appeal to the départements outside of Paris; persecuted by Robespierre during the Terror; disagreed with the Mountain about what should happen to Louis XVI, thought he should be exiled
  • The Mountain – the other division of the Jacobin Club; named the Mountain, because it’s members had the highest seats in the Convention; closely allied with the Parisian militants; thought that Louis XVI should be executed 
  • The Guillotine – the machine used for decapitation if someone was condemned to the death penalty; Louis XVI was killed by the guillotine and it was in most use during Robespierre’s Terror where many political foes were sent if they were considered counterrevolutionaries; symbol of the Terror  

The Terror

  • Committee of Public Safety – after the king was overthrown,  the Committee of Public Safety had all the executive power during the Terror; the Head of the Committee was Robespierre; responsible for thousands of executions by the guillotine; Jacobin committee which centralized denunciations, trials, and executions of suspected counterrevolutionaries
  • Maximilien Robespierre – Head of the Committee of Public Safety; essentially the “guiding spirit and chief spokesman of the Revolution”; born in 1758, his mom died and dad ran out on him and his siblings, had to live with old people, supported his siblings once he was old enough, became a lawyer; he often changed his political views to fit the situation and please his base (however if he wouldn’t have changed his views he wouldn’t be remembered); at first he was against a war with Austria because he believed it would divide France however he changed his mind when he became the Head of Public Safety; he believed in everyone person’s democratic rights but restricted them and a free-market economy but was willing to enact price controls and requisitioning; not well liked figure in history:
  • associated with the killing of many people during the Terror, many of whom where innocent
  • a “goody goody”; too perfect
  • merciless and unforgiving
  • scapegoat for the Terror
  • he was a flip-flopper (changed his views to fit the situation)
  • “revolutionary armies” – during the Terror, France fought wars with just about every major European power; the young men were forced to go to war, married men to transport provisions and arms, women to make tents and work in hospitals, and children to make bandages; these armies helped to spread revolution and republicanism throughout Europe
  • General Maximum – a change implemented by Robespierre; set a price on thirty-nine commodity items and on wages
  • Terror – an era symbolized by the guillotine; a time when France used totalitarian methods in order to create the “Republic of Virtue”; typically Robespierre comes to mind; the guillotine was often used in order to suppress any form of dissent
  • Revolutionary Tribunal – set up during the Terror in order to try suspected counterrevolutionaries (many of those suspects were sent to the guillotine)
  • La Marseillaise – the new national anthem; named after the soldiers of Marseille who first sang it
  • Festival of Federation – marked the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille; on July 14, 1790; Jacques-Louis David took over festival planning; aimed to destroy the mystique of the monarchy and make the republic sacred; it was hoped by some that these festivals would replace Christianity (de-Christianization)
  • Cult of Reason – Robespierre turned the cathedral of Notre Dame into a Temple of Reason; all part of the process of de-Christianization
  • Cult of the Supreme Being – Robespierre’s attempt to move people away from the corrupting influence of the church; he established this, but then decided against it because it led to political backlash against the Committee of Public Safety
  • Georges-Jacques Danton – a bigger name in the Committee of Public Safety; helped to overthrow the monarchy; sent to the guillotine by his “friend” Robespierre
  • vous or tu – a change under the republic; typically people were addressed as vous if they were strangers (or madame, mademoiselle, monsieur); however, this was considered to be aristocratic so it was changed so that everyone called each other tu (or citoyen, citoyenne)
  • sans-culottides – the festivals on five days left at the end of the year on the French Revolutionary calendar (republican reform)
  • Charlotte Corday – assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in July 1793; she was a fervent Girondin and considered it her patriotic duty to kill the man who consistently demanded more and more of their blood in the columns of the newspaper
  • Vendée – the place where resistance of the revolution turned into a full scale civil war; this war lasted from March to December 1793; the peasants, artisans, and weavers came together under noble leadership to form a “Catholic and Royal Army”; their rebellion against the republic was bloody and took many lives, not only republicans but Vendée citizens as well; eventually their rebellion was put down by republican forces
  • Jean-Baptiste Carrier – a deputy who helped to put down the Vendée rebellion; he was known for cruelty to his enemies, especially priests; he supervised the drowning of some 2,000 Vendée rebels, many of whom were priests
  • “Thermidorian Reaction” – the reaction to Robespierre’s speech where he said that deputies were too be arrested, except he didn’t give the names; thus, everyone was afraid that it was them; there was an uprising in the Convention, known as the “Thermidorian Reaction”; Robespierre was then arrested and executed by the guillotine
  •  “White Terror” – in southeastern France, the “White Terror” replaced the Jacobin’s “Red Terror”; many Jacobins were harassed, beaten and murdered by paramilitary bands who supported the new authority
  • The Directory – the new form of executive and legislative government after Robespierre’s death; it was a two house body headed by five directors
  • Law of Suspects – this law allowed the creation of revolutionary tribunals in order to try those suspected to be counterrevolutionaries

The Directory and Rise of Napoleon

  • London Corresponding Society – British and French radicals discussed their radical ideas, which was frowned upon by the government
  • “Sister Republics” – ??? other republics in Europe? Allied forces with France? I’m not sure, Doc doesn’t cover this stuff in class.
  • Francoise-Dominique Toussaint L’Ouverture – helped lead a large-scale slave revolt in St. Domingue (now Haiti); once slavery in St. Domingue was abolished Toussaint left the Spanish side in favor of the French one and eventually became the governor of St. Domingue; however under Toussaint the former slaves were bound to their estates like serfs and were forced to work the plantations in return for autonomous family rights and the right to maintain personal garden plots; Toussaint remained in power until Napoleon came in 1802, when he was arrested and taken to prison in France
  • Napoleon Bonaparte –
  • born in Corsica; his family was noble but not wealthy; went to French to be educated (École de Militaire) however he was an outcast due to his social status; normally due to his social status he would have become a small general, but the revolution presented him opportunities, which otherwise wouldn’t have been available (could rise based upon merit not social status)
  • his popularity as an army officer increased, because he won many victories when France was losing
  • Italian campaign (1796-1797): launched his career 
  • Liked by his soldiers; hated by the aristocracy
  • In 1799, Napoleon himself staged a coup, which was only successful due to his brother (people thought that he was becoming a dictator and wanted to take him down; his brother had troops guard the hall, saying that the deputies of the Directory had tried to assassinate Napoleon; in this coup, he had a new constitution written in which he was named the First Consul, which meant he had the right to pick the Council of State (which drew up all the laws)
  • Changes under Emperor Napoleon I
  • reconciled with the Catholic church
  • made a deal with the pope, saying that Catholicism was the religion of the “great majority of citizens” (aka the established religion so it was helped by the government)
  • the church lands were confiscated by the French government to help Napoleon and the Pope OK’d it
  • centralized state power
  • appointed prefects in order to better control all of France
  • eliminated and censored newspapers
  • set up a new social hierarchy (many of his friends and family were nobility, however he also invited many of the old aristocrats into the new monarchy in order to give it legitimacy)
  • created the National Bank
  • created the Civil Code in 1804
  • patronized science and the arts
  • united all the armies into one Grand Army under his personal command
  • Napoleon fought wars with just about every country in Europe; he wanted to conquer the world however it eventually became just Europe when he plans for the New World were thwarted by a slave revolt
  • he was a brilliant military strategist and contributed his victories to morale of the French soldiers, leadership, and the superiority of numbers at the point of attack
  • he was able to get control of many territories, and his rulers helped to improve roads, public works, law codes, and education
  • Eventually however, Napoleon fell out of power, due to his victory (which ultimately felt like a loss) in Moscow where he found the city burned; he decided to go back to Paris in the middle of winter and many soldiers deserted; on the way back he got ambushed by Russian, Austrian, Prussian, and Swedish forces and was defeated in the Battle of Nations; after this battle his German allies deserted him; in 1814 the French Senates deposed Napoleon and he was sent into exile on the island of Elba
  • After Napoleon was sent into exile the allies agreed to restore the monarchy and put Louis XVIII on the throne; however Napoleon had one last chance to regain power since the king didn’t have a solid support base; Napoleon moved his army into present day Belgium and it seemed like he might be able to succeed in fighting the multiple countries coming at him; however, when the Prussians met up with the British at Waterloo an d beat Napoleon he had no choice but to abdicate (the period between his escape from Elba and his final defeat is known as the 100 Days); he was then shipped off to a small island of the coast of Western Africa known as St. Helena where he died in 1821 at the age of 52
  • Horatio Nelson – famous British admiral who was killed at the sea battle of Trafalgar
  • Rosetta Stone – stone discovered by Napoleon’s scientists when he invaded Egypt; it had writings on it in both hieroglyphics and Greek, which allowed scholars to finally be able to decipher hieroglyphics (even though Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt failed, this made it a success)
  • First Consul – Napoleon’s title under his new Constitution in 1799; taken from the ancient Roman Republic; said that he had the power to chose who was on the Council of State, which drew up all the laws
  • Council of State – the legislation picked by Napoleon; just there for show; has no real power

Emperor Napoleon I

  • Bank of France – one of Napoleon’s reforms; created to facilitate government borrowing; relied on gold and silver coinage rather than paper money
  • Joseph Fouché – Napoleon’s minister of police; a leading figure in the Terror; his job was to keep political dissidents under constant surveillance
  • Arc de Triomphe – one of the many public works projects created by Napoleon; honored those who fought for France in the Napoleonic wars
  • “king of Rome” – ??? Doc said he wasn’t really sure about this one; I’d assume it has something to do with Napoleon taking many things from ancient Rome (i.e. First Consul)
  • Civil Code – also called the Napoleonic Code; this ensured property rights, religious freedom, and equal legal treatment for all adult males; this also took away many women’s rights; a wife couldn’t sue in court, sell or mortgage her own property, or contract a debt without her husbands consent; established in 1804; provided a single legal system for all of France
  • lycées – secondary schools established under Napoleon; women were not allowed to attend
  • Germaine de Staël – daughter of Jacques Necker; critic of Napoleon; banished by Napoleon due to her literary criticism; one of the most famous critics forced to live in exile
  • Trafalgar – a sea battle off the coast of Spain; Britain vs. France + Spain; French defeat; Horatio Nelson was killed in the battle; one of the biggest battles in the Napoleonic Wars
  • Austerlitz – battle; France vs. Russia + Austria; French victory; after this the Confederation of the Rhine was created; 1805; one of Napoleon’s greatest victories destroyed the Third Coalition against the French Empire
  • Alexander I – a Russian tsar; defeated in the battle of Austerlitz; forced to make peace with Napoleon and signed the Treaty of Tilist, which managed to save the country of Prussia, however it’s size was significantly smaller; later he allied himself with the Swedish and British and was able to challenge Napoleon’s power; his troops instead of facing Napoleon retreated eastward, destroying everything and although the French took Moscow, they only got its ruins
  • Confederation of the Rhine – 16 German states; this was a client state to Napoleon’s France; it was created after the Battle of Austerlitz
  • Continental System – this system prohibited France and any countries allied with France from trading with Great Britain; however this system ending up hurting the economics of France and its allies more and caused resentment
  • Hundred Days – the period when Napoleon escaped from exile in Elba to his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo and abdication; he saw a chance to regain power because the monarch King Louis XVIII didn’t really have a support base; so Napoleon escaped from the island of Elba, gathered an army in France, and marched into Belgium; at first it seemed like he could over come the multiple countries coming at him; however, when the Prussians were able to meet up with the British at Waterloo, he was finally defeated, forced to abdicate, and shipped off to a tiny island in the Atlantic
  • Duke of Wellington – a British general with whom the Prussian army met up; these allied forces were able to finally defeat Napoleon at Waterloo
  • St. Helena – where Napoleon was banished and ultimately died; a remote island far off the coast of West Africa

Ideas and Ideologies

  • Montesquieu – ideas helped to influence the French Revolution; came up with the idea to divide government into different branches (executive, judiciary, and legislative)
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau – his ideas helped to inspire the French revolution; he was very anti-education and tended to change his mind a lot (if you ask me, he was on drugs, but that’s just my opinion); believed that civilization was the root of all inequality; men must all obey the General Will and if they don’t they will be forced to (totalitarianism); like the Terror pursing democracy through totalitarian means
  • Voltaire – Enlightenment writer, who defended civil liberties such as freedom of religion and free trade; criticized the Catholic religion; his ideas helped to influence the French revolution
  • Pantheon – place in France where a bunch of famous people are buried (i.e. Voltaire, Rousseau); idea taken from Rome
  • Sovereignty – the exclusive right to control a government, country, and people; Enlightenment philosophes said that it comes from the Social Contract, not divine right

Important Dates

  • 1788 – Louis XVI calls for the meeting of the Estates General
  • May 1789 – the Estates General convenes at Versailles
  • June 1789 – the formation of the7 National Assembly, Tennis Court Oath
  • July 14, 1789 – the Storming of the Bastille
  • August 4, 1789 – the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
  • October 1789 – the women of Paris storm Versailles
  • November 1789 – the National Assembly confiscates church lands
  • 1790 – Civil Constitution of the Clergy
  • 1791 – The National Assembly becomes the Legislative Assembly
  • June 1791 – The Flight to Varennes (the royal family is arrested)
  • August 1791 – Declaration of Pillnitz by Austria and Prussia (said that if the revolutionaries hurt Louis XVI there would be consequences)
  • April 1792 – France declares war on Austria (Louis hopes to end the Revolution; the revolutionaries hope to end the monarchy)
  • September 1792 – September Massacres; Declaration of the Republic
  • January 1793 – execution of Louis XVI
  • 1793 – 1796 – insurrection in the provinces
  • July 1793 – Robespierre named to the Committee of Public Safety; the Death of Marat
  • July 1793 – the Terror Begins
  • October 1793 – the execution of Marie Antoinette
  • March – April 1793 – the Great Terror
  • July 1794 – the Thermidorian reaction and the execution of Robespierre
  • 1795 – Directory takes over; Napoleon conquers Italy
  • 1798 – 1799 – Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt 
  • November 1799 – Napoleon seizes power
  • 1804 – Napoleon names himself emperor, issues the Civil Code
  • 1805 – the Battle of Trafalgar and Austerlitz
  • 1810 – height of the Grand Empire
  • 1812 – the invasion of Russia
  • 1815 – the 100 Days and the Battle of Waterloo
  • 1821 – Napoleon dies at age 52



Western Civilizations – Doc Smith


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From Monarchy to Republic (Typed up 3-1 Assignment)


What type of government did the revolutionaries first try to establish?:
The revolutionaries tried to establish a constitutional monarchy based on the Enlightenment principles of human rights and rational government.

What type of government was created following the second revolution of 1792?
A republic, in which all the power rested in an elected legislature

What rights did the declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens provide?
Reminiscent to the American Declaration of Independence, it proclaimed that men are born and remain free and equal. The declaration granted freedom of religion, freedom of press, equality of taxation, and equality before the law.

**Women never received the right to vote during the French Revolution, although though Jewish and Protestants did. Women weren’t allowed to participate in politics. Some women viewed this as betrayal. The women organized political clubs, wrote petitions and so on to demand more participation.

What did Olympe de Gouges want?
She wanted women to also be included in the declaration. S he wanted women to have equal rights as men.
Did she get it?

Could the new government collect taxes more efficiently?
No, because the deputies abolished the old taxes and replaced them with new ones, but the Assembly still had a bad time collecting taxes, because the people expected a substantial tax reduction.

How did the Civil Constitution of the Clergy create more problems?
The Civil Constitution of the Clergy required the clergy to take an oath and some of them refused to take it, so the government passed laws that executed an exiled some of them. Riots and demonstrations by20women began again.

What was the “flight to Varennes”?
This was when the royal family of France escaped from Tuileries in disguise to eastern France where they hoped to gather support from the Austrian emperor. Their plans backfired when a postmaster revealed them and they were arrested and sent back.
What impact did it have on French politics?
The national assembly called the incident a kidnapping, but this started demonstrations against the royal families which some regarded as traitors.

=0 A
Why did Louis XVI seek war with Austria?
He believed that the war would lead to20the definite defeat of the revolution.
Why did the revolutionaries want it?
They believed that the war would reveal the king’s treachery and lead to his downfall. 
What was its affect on French politics?
The French army was unprepared for the battle and the French Legislative came under power.

What was the Brunswick Manifesto?
Announced that Paris would be completely destroyed if the royal family suffered any violence.

Who were the sans-culottes?
Meant mean “without breeches”. Knee breeches were a symbol of the upper class.

What was their favorite political clubs?
The Jacobin Club

Who attacked the King in the Tuileries palace?
The sans-culottes

What did the Legislative assembly do in response?
They ordered new elections

What did the new convention do as soon as it meet in session?
They abolished the monarchy and established the first republic in French history.

What did the mobs of Paris do when they feared the Prussian army20would enter the city?

How did the Revolution divide the population?
For some it had not gone far enough towards providing food and land against enemies, for others, it had gone too far by dismantling the church and the monarchy.

What were the two factors that made up the Jacobins?
The Gironde: Resented the growing power of the Parisian militants and tried to appeal to the departments outside of Paris
The Mountains: was closely allied with the Paris militants


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Test Review

French Revolution: liberty, equality, and brotherhood

  • Importance
        • Complete transformation of French culture
          • Destroyed monarchy and the Catholic Church
            • People in charge, mob mentality


  • 1st estate- clergymen
  • 2nd estate- nobility and monarchy
  • 3rd estate- lower/middle class (majority)
        • Carrying burdens of the higher estates

Causes of revolution:

  • Political
        • 3rd estate/inequality
        • English Civil War, Glorious Revolution, American Revolution
          • Inspiration
          • Monarchs were reorganized, overthrown, limited by normal people and parliament
        • Ineffective leadership of Louis 14th and 15th
        • Louis 16th: indecisive, bad leader, fat, starving people, doesn’t care, weak
          • Marries Marie Antoinette for strategic ties to Austria
          • Both spend and waste tons of money
      • Social
        • The Enlightenment- think for yourself, don’t trust authority
        • Rise of the bourgeoisie class
      • Economic
        • France is bankrupt
        • 3rd estate is subjected to huge taxes
        • Poor harvest
          • High bread prices- revolt, can’t afford to eat

Estates General

  • Louis calls Estates General to power to hear the grievances of the 3rd estate
        • Response: “the Cahiers: Discontent of the Third Estate”
          • Estates General should meet regularly
          • Need popular vote
            • Currently each estate held one vote each, although the third estate made up 97% of the population
          • 1st and 2nd estates need to pay taxes too
          • Offices should be occupied by competent
          • No unjust imprisonment
          • Freedom of the press
        • Louis denies them so the deputies all move to the tennis court (Tennis Court Oath) and they Demand new constitution

Phases of French Revolution:

  • Bourgeois Phase – revolt of the masses
    • Fall of Bastille
      • Cause: Louis fires Jack Necker
      • Large crowd attacks the building with gunpowder, paraded the heads of the guards around the streets on sticks
    • Declaration of the Rights of Man
      • Equal rights for all, punishment
      • Freedom of press, religion
      • Sovereignty belongs to the people
      • Fair taxes
    • Jean Paul Marat- revolutionary who begins to stir up the crowds through his newspaper
    • Jacobin club
      • Enlightened group
      • Become the leaders of the National Assembly
      • Robespierre
  • The Radical Phase
    • After execution of the king and queen
    • Reign of Terror
      • Most violent and chaotic, corruption
      • The Guillotine – new instrument for executions
    • National Assembly declares war on Austria
      • They were protecting Louis and Marie
    • The September Massacre
      • Not enough room in the prisons, so they slaughtered all the current ones
      • The Sanculot
      • Danton takes over as leading revolutionary
    • Aristocracy and monarchy are abolished
    • Now attack Catholic Church, religion is the route of all problems
      • New saint = Marat (martyr) killed for his list of traitors in his newspaper
  • Thermidorian/Conservative Phase
    • Counter revolution, back lash- back to original ideals, taking out the revolutionaries
      • The Dantoniests and the Deputees
      • Execute Maximillion Robespierre in order to stop the terror 
    • Attempts for stable government
    • Thermidorian Reaction
      • Threatened to undo the gains laid by former slaves and free people of color
  • Takeover of Napoleon
    • Right back to monarchy/dictatorship
    • Resolution

Foreign Reaction to Revolution:

  • England: mixed
    • Liberal – excited (ordinary citizens against monarchy)
    • Conservatives – horrified
      • Demolishment of Catholic Church
      • Edmund Burke: argues tradition and monarchy are best
      • People cannot be trusted
    • Women – learn ideas from revolution
      • Mary Wollstonecraft – wants more rights too, equality
  • United States
    • France appealed for help
    • Neutrality Acts
  • Continental Europe
    • Kings and Queens welcomed the Revolution
  • Declaration of Phillnitz


  • Overthrew the Directory and defeats Austria
  • First consul of the republic
  • The Civil Code
        • Equality for all male citizens before the law
        • Absolute security of wealth and private property
      • Domestic reforms
        • Helped the peasants, gained both land and status
        • Reassured the solid middle class
        • Accepted and strengthened the French bureaucracy
      • Concordat of 1801
        • French Catholics could now practice their religion freely
        • Napoleon gained political power
      • The Third Coalition (against France)
        • Austria, Russia, Sweden and Britain
      • Napoleonic Wars
        • Battle of Trafalgar and the Battle of Austerlitz
          • Napoleon is victories and gains land
        • Invasion of Russia/ Prussia, they surrendered and agreed to many peace agreements and promises

Key terms:

  • Assembly of Notables
    • Louis XVI’s minister of finance, Jack Necker, suggested that he impose a general tax on all people and create this assembly to gain support for the idea (helps the people)
      • Notables were mostly noblemen and clergy so they opposed the new tax
        • Notables suggested that the control of money and taxes should go to the Estates General
  • Estates General: representative body of all three estates
  • National Assembly
    • During the Estates General meeting, the third estate refused to behave until the other estates sat with them
      • The few people that did, now the group is called National Assembly
  • The Great Fear
    • Peasants in the country side began to rise in revolt against their lords, seized forests, taxes went unpaid
      • Fear of vagabonds and outlaws
      • Helped spur rebellion
        • Doing their best to free themselves from manorial rights and exploitation
  • Constitutional monarchy
    • National Assembly (middle class leadership) abolished the French nobility as a legal order and created this new government which Louis XVI was forced to accept
      • King remained head of state
      • All lawmaking power placed in hands of National Assembly, elected by the economic upper half of French males
  • Second revolution: the phase in which the fall of the monarchy marked a rapid radicalization of the Revolution
  • National Convention members were Jacobin, divided into 2 groups:
    • The Girondists
    • The Mountain- led by Robespierre and Georges Jacques Danton
  • Sans-culottes: the laboring poor and the petty traders 
  • Planned economy:
    • Established by Robespierre
    • Government set maximum allowable prices for key products
      • Fixed the price of bread in Paris at levels the poor could afford
  • Reign of Terror: used revolutionary terror to solidify the home front
    • Judged severely and executed an alarming amount of people
  • Nationalism: patriotic dedication to a national state and a national mission, common loyalty to France
  • Abolition of slavery
    • National Convention promised freedom to those who fought for France
    • Eventually they ratified the abolition of slavery and extended it to all French territories as well
  • Thermidorian reaction
    • Reaction to the despotism of the Reign of Terror
      • Called the early days of the Revolution, the original respectable leaders
  • General Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Treaty of Luneville: Austria loses Italian possessions, France gets German territories on the west bank
  • Treaty of Amiens: France in control of Holland, Austrian, Netherlands, Rhine, and Italian peninsula
  • Grand Empire (built by Napoleon) all were expected to support him and stop trade with Britain
    • First part: the core, ever expanding France
    • 2nd part: beyond French borders, dependent satellite kingdoms
      • Placed members of his family on their thrones
    • 3rd part: independent but allied Austria, Prussia, and Russia
  • Toussaint L’Ouverture: independent ruler of western province of Saint-Domingue
  • Andre Rigaud: set up his own government in the southern peninsula

Textbook summary:

  • Causes of Revolution
        • Class struggle between entrenched nobility and the rising bourgeoisie
        • Poor monarchical rule
        • Rising torrent of political theory
        • Financial crisis generated by France’s involvement in the 7 Years War and American Revolution
      • Louis forced to call meeting of the Estates General, first time in 200 years
        • Proposal- the Third Estate in itself constituted the French nation
      • By 1791 the National Assembly eliminated Old Regime privileges and established a constitutional monarchy
      • Colony of Saint-Domingue
        • New movements for increased colonial autonomy, legal equality, rebellions against their masters
      • Popular fears of counter-revolutionary conspiracy
        • Accusations and executions
        • Jacobins eliminated all political opponents
      • The Directory
        • Took power after the fall of Robespierre
        • Restored political equilibrium at the cost of social equality
      • Group of conspirators gave Napoleon Bonaparte control of France
        • Brilliant reputation, military leader- ideal to lead France
        • Relentless ambitions led to his downfall
      • Legacies of the Revolution
        • Liberalism, assertive nationalism, radical democratic republicanism, embryonic socialism, self conscious conservatism, abolitionism, decolonization, movements for racial and sexual equality
        • Whole range of political options and alternative views for the future




  • Enlightenment emerges in France
  • Jack Necker appointed head of French finances
  • Estates General assembly held
  • Tennis Court Oath
  • 3rd Estate emerges
  • National Assembly
  • 1789
        • Fall of Bastille/beginning of the French Revolution
        • The Great Fear in the countryside
        • Declaration of the Rights of Man
        • Mob of women forced the king and queen to live in Paris
      • 1790 King forced to sign a document that limits his power
  • Marat starts his newspaper, list of traitors
  • Jacobin club forms
  • 1791 King and Queen flee to Austria, caught, arrested and brought back to Paris
  • Guillotine designed
  • 1792
        • National Assembly declares war on Austria
        • National Convention replaces the National Assembly
          • Want to eliminate Catholic influence
        • September Massacre/ the Sahculot, Danton takes lead of revolution
  • 1793 execution of Louis and Marie, aristocracy and monarchy abolished
  • Catholic Church comes under attack
  • 1794
        • Robespierre turns it around and defeats the Austrians thanks to his planned economy, Reign of Terror, and nationalism
        • Ratification of the abolition of slavery and extended to all French territories
        • Counter revolutionary groups Dantoniests and Deputees form
        • Robespierre and Danton are guillotined for involvement in Reign of Terror
        • Execution of Robespierre 
  • 1795 The Directory replaces the National Convention
  • 1799 Napoleon takes control of France, ending the revolution
  • 1815- frantic period known as the Hundred Days, allies crushed Napoleon at waterloo and imprisoned him off the coast of Africa



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French Revolution Summary Review
Directions: Read the following handout about the French Revolution.
**Identify and define the following terms on a separate sheet of paper.**


Great Fear




(French) National Assembly

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen


Reign of Terror


Tennis Court Oath

Legislative Assembly

French National Convention

Maximilien Robespierre


Phase One of the Revolution: The National and Legislative Assemblies
The meeting of the Estates-General was held in May 1789 with 291 clergymen, 279 nobles, and 578 members of the Third Estate as representatives. Immediately, a dispute arose over the voting structure. The nobles of the Second Estate demanded the use of one vote per estate, which would effectively nullify (cancel) any vote of the Third Estate. Accordingly, the Third Estate refused to participate, and along with a handful of sympathizers from the other Estates, seceded from the Estates-General on June 17, 1789. Declaring themselves the French National Assembly, they met at a tennis court, where they made an oath not to disband until they produced a constitution for the nation. (This is called the Tennis Court Oath).

Meanwhile, rumors were growing about an aristocratic conspiracy to overthrow the Third Estate, and as troops gathered around Paris, mobs broke into buildings looking for weapons during a three-day frenzy. On July 14, the uprising culminated in the storming of the Bastille, the armory-prison that had become a symbol of the tyranny of the ancien régime. After taking over the building, the mob massacred the staff and freed the prisoners. In the countryside, peasant uprisings known as the Great Fear coincided with the urban revolution. On August 4, the National Assembly, desiring to appease the peasants, abolished serfdom, old feudal privileges, and ecclesiastical tithing. The National Assembly codified the new civil equality on August 26 with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789).

As the revolution grew, Louis XVI allowed the National Assembly to continue (he invited the nobility and clergy to join it) and grudgingly recognized the sovereignty of the people. Yet the king rejected the abolition of feudalism and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In response, angry women and men marched from Paris to the king's palace at Versailles on October 5. They were supported by some 20,000 National Guards. The marchers forced the royal family back to Paris and confined them in the old Tuileries Palace. On October 21, the National Assembly declared martial law.

Over the next several months, the National Assembly passed a series of liberal reforms. On November 2, the assembly nationalized Church property, and in February 1790, it forbade monastic vows. The assembly also proceeded to simplify France's complex administrative system. From 28 unequal provinces, the nation was reorganized into 83 equal departments, each administered by an elected assembly. On June 20, 1790, the assembly officially abolished the nobility. On August 16, it reorganized the judiciary and abolished the old, nobility-controlled parlements, or law courts.

In the summer of 1791, Louis and his family escaped Paris but were caught in Varennes and returned to Paris on June 25. Louis was soon forced to accept the new Constitution of 1791 that provided for a limited monarchy. The Constitution also created a new legislature to replace the National Assembly. On October 1, 1791, the unicameral French Legislative Assembly convened.

The one year of the Legislative Assembly's existence was marked by friction between Louis XVI, who could veto any law passed by the assembly, and the majority of representatives, known as the Girondins, who increasingly mistrusted the king's intentions. Meanwhile, the revolution had begun to concern the other powers in Europe, as revolutionary supporters, known as Jacobins, were growing in number. The possibility of a war between revolutionary France and the monarchies of Europe loomed.

In April 1792, Louis XVI, hoping that war with Austria and Prussia would result in French defeat and allow him to reestablish his lost authority, asked the Legislative Assembly to declare war. The assembly, hoping to unify the nation with military victory abroad, acquiesced. France went to war against Austria and Prussia, the first in a series of conflicts known as the French Revolutionary Wars.

Upset by several defeats in the war and suspecting Louis of betrayal, revolutionaries began demanding the overthrow of the monarchy. After successfully storming the Tuileries on August 10, 1792, they imprisoned the royal family. The following month, mobs of Parisians invaded the city's prisons and massacred imprisoned clergy and nobles. As sympathy for the monarch collapsed, a new constitution that denied the king's power was needed. The Legislative Assembly was dissolved and replaced by the French National Convention. After convening on September 20, the Convention abolished the monarchy and proclaimed a republic.

Phase Two of the Revolution: Convention and Reign of Terror

The next phase of the French Revolution was characterized by political extremism. In December 1792, the Convention voted to try Louis XVI for treason. Convicted and condemned to death, the former king was beheaded on January 21, 1793. The execution sent shockwaves throughout Europe.

In the spring of 1793, the Convention established the Committee of Public Safety (CPS), a 12-man committee that would function as the executive branch of the revolutionary government. Representatives of both dominant factions in the Convention, the Girondins and the Montagnards, were included on the committee. In May, however, the more moderate Girondins were purged from the Convention, and the more extreme Montagnards took control of the Convention and the CPS. Closely associated with the Jacobin Club, a Parisian revolutionary society, the Montagnards of the CPS began to use their broad powers to root out so-called enemies of the revolution.

The counterrevolutionary tactics of the CPS soon became known as the Reign of Terror. Under the direction of Maximilien Robespierre, the CPS executed tens of thousands of people by guillotine in the name of the revolution. At least 300,000 suspects were arrested, 17,000 were officially executed, and many died in prison or without trial.

Meanwhile, the Convention continued to pass legislative reforms. In August 1793, the revolutionary government imposed the levée en masse, a conscription of all able-bodied men between the the ages of 18 and 25. Much of the old officer corps was either forced into exile or executed, which allowed new officers from nonaristocratic backgrounds to rise rapidly through the ranks. The French Army grew to 1 million troops. In addition, in October 1793, as part of its goal to be a completely secular government, the Convention abolished the Gregorian calendar, which had Christian associations, and replaced it with what it viewed as a more scientific one. The 12 months were renamed, each month was divided into three so-called decades rather than weeks, and the year 1793 became known as year I.

Finally, in July 1794, in what is known as the Thermidorian reaction (named after the revolutionary month Thermidor), the Convention overthrew Robespierre and put an end to the Reign of Terror. Moderates in the Convention hoped to revive the original principles of the revolution, but a power struggle ensued with the reinstated Girondins and others who wanted revenge for the Terror.

Phase Three of the Revolution: Directory and Consulate

In 1795, wanting to decentralize power to prevent another Robespierre, the Convention drew up a new constitution that established the French Directory. Under this fifth revolutionary government, France was to be governed by five directors, chosen by a bicameral legislature divided into a council of 500 and an upper chamber of 250 "ancients." Ruled by the bourgeoisie, the Directory was plagued by the same problems encountered by the Convention. Struggles between revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries persisted, and war in Europe raged on.

On November 9, 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte, a military hero of the revolutionary wars in Europe, overthrew the Directory in a coup d'état (military overthrow). Emmanuel Sieyès, who had helped plan the coup, drew up the Constitution of 1799, which established the French Consulate, the sixth and final revolutionary government. As first consul, Napoleon used his broad, dictatorial powers to bring the turmoil of the 10-year revolution to a close. In 1802, he was appointed consul for life, and in 1804, he proclaimed himself emperor Napoleon I of France.

The revolutionary dream of a French Republic would not be permanently realized until 1871, after the fall of the Second Empire under Napoleon III. Nevertheless, the massive societal reform begun during the French Revolution continued, and the revolution's republican ideals of "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" inspired revolutionary groups throughout Europe and the New World.



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French Revolution and Napoleon summaries


The French Revolution (1789–1799)

Key People & Terms


Napoleon Bonaparte

A general in the French army and leader of the 1799 coup that overthrew the Directory. Napoleon’s accession marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of Napoleonic France and Europe.

Jacques-Pierre Brissot

A member of the Legislative Assembly and National Convention who held a moderate stance and believed in the idea of a constitutional monarchy. Brissot’s followers, initially known simply as Brissotins, eventually became known more generally as the Girondins. After unsuccessfully declaring war on Austria and Prussia, Brissot was removed from the National Convention and, like many Girondin leaders, lost his life at the guillotine during the Reign of Terror in 1793–1794.

Charles de Calonne

The controller general of finance appointed by King Louis XVI after Jacques Necker was forced out of office in 1781. Calonne proposed a daring plan to shift the French tax burden from the poor to wealthy nobles and businessmen, suggesting a tax on land proportional to land values and a lessened tax burden for peasants. The French nobility, however, refused to pay these taxes.

Lazare Carnot

A French soldier appointed by the Committee of Public Safety to help reorganize the failing war effort against Austria and Prussia. Carnot did so very effectively and made enough of a name for himself to earn a seat as one of the first members of the Directory. Although he was removed from this position during the overthrow of September 4, 1797, he went on to hold various posts in future governments.

Marquis de Lafayette

A liberal nobleman who led French forces assisting in the American Revolution. The common people of France revered Lafayette as an idealistic man who was dedicated to liberty and the principles of the Revolution. Although Lafayette organized the National Guard of armed citizens to protect the Revolution from attack by the king, he balked as the Revolution became more radical.

Louis XVI

The French king from 1774 to 1792 who was deposed during the French Revolution and executed in 1793. Louis XVI inherited the debt problem left by his grandfather, Louis XV, and added to the crisis himself through heavy spending during France’s involvement in the American Revolution from 1775 to 1783. Because this massive debt overwhelmed all of his financial consultants, Louis XVI was forced to give in to the demands of the Parlement of Paris and convene the Estates-General—an action that led directly to the outbreak of the Revolution. Louis XVI was deposed in 1792 and executed a year later.


The wife of King Louis XVI and, in the French commoners’ eyes, the primary symbol of the French royalty’s extravagance and excess. When Marie-Antoinette was executed in 1793, she was dressed in a plain dress, common to the poorest in French society.

Jacques Necker

A Swiss-born banker who served as France’s director general of finance in the late 1770s, with high hopes of instituting reform. As it turned out, Necker was able only to propose small efforts at eliminating costly inefficiencies. He did produce a government budget, however, for the first time in French history.

Maximilien Robespierre

A brilliant political tactician and leader of the radical Jacobins in the National Assembly. As chairman of the Committee of Public Safety, Robespierre pursued a planned economy and vigorous mobilization for war. He grew increasingly paranoid about counterrevolutionary opposition, however, and during the Reign of Terror of 1793–1794 attempted to silence all enemies of the Revolution in an effort to save France from invasion. After the moderates regained power and the Thermidorian Reaction was under way, they had Robespierre executed on July 28, 1794.

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès

A liberal member of the clergy, supporter of the Third Estate, and author of the fiery 1789 pamphlet “What Is the Third Estate?” Sieyès was one of the primary leaders of the Third Estate’s effort at political and economic reform in France.


August Decrees

A series of decrees issued by the National Assembly in August 1789 that successfully suppressed the Great Fear by releasing all peasants from feudal contracts.


A large armory and state prison in the center of Paris that a mob of sans-culottes sacked on July 14, 1789, giving the masses arms for insurrection. The storming of the Bastille had little practical consequence, but it was an enormous symbolic act against the ancien régime, inspired the revolutionaries, and is still celebrated today as the French holiday Bastille Day.


The middle and upper classes of French society who, as members of the Third Estate, wanted an end to the principle of privilege that governed French society in the late 1700s. The bourgeoisie represented the moderate voices during the French Revolution and were represented by delegates in both the Estates-General and the National Assembly.

Civil Constitution of the Clergy

A document, issued by the National Assembly in July 1790, that broke ties with the Catholic Church and established a national church system in France with a process for the election of regional bishops. The document angered the pope and church officials and turned many French Catholics against the revolutionaries.

Committee of Public Safety

A body, chaired by Maximilien Robespierre, to which the National Convention gave dictatorial powers in April 1793 in an attempt to deal with France’s wars abroad and economic problems at home. Although the committee led off its tenure with an impressive war effort and economy-salvaging initiatives, things took a turn for the worse when Robespierre began his violent Reign of Terror in late 1793.

Constitution of 1791

The new French constitution that in 1791 established a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, with all executive power answerable to a legislative assembly. Under the new constitution, King Louis XVI could only temporarily veto legislation passed by the assembly. The constitution restricted voting in the assembly to the upper and middle classes of French society and abolished “nobility” as a legal order.

Declaration of Pillnitz

An August 27, 1791, warning from Prussia and Austria announcing that they would intervene militarily in France if any harm came to King Louis XVI, who had just been captured trying to escape with his family from Paris. The declaration prompted then–Legislative Assembly leader Jacques-Pierre Brissot to declare war on Austria and Prussia.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

A document, issued by the National Assembly on August 26, 1789, that granted sovereignty to all French people. The declaration, which drew from the ideas of some of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, asserted that liberty is a “natural” and “imprescriptible” right of man and that “men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”


The new executive branch established by the constitution written during the moderate Thermidorian Reaction of 1794–1795. The Directory was appointed by the legislative assembly. However, after 1797 election results proved unfavorable to elements in the Directory, it orchestrated an overthrow of the assembly and maintained dubious control over France until it was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799.


A medieval representative institution in France that had not met for 175 years before King Louis XVI reconvened it on May 5, 1789, to deal with the looming financial crisis. Consisting of three estates—the clergy, nobility, and commoners, respectively—the Estates-General was the only group that would be able to force the assorted French parlements into accepting the controller general of finance Charles de Calonne’s tax decrees.


The name given to the moderates in the National Convention. The Girondins controlled the legislative assembly until 1793, when, with the war going poorly and food shortages hurting French peasants, the Jacobins ousted them from power.

Great Fear

A period in July and August 1789 during which rural peasants revolted against their feudal landlords and wreaked havoc in the French countryside.


The radical wing of representatives in the National Convention, named for their secret meeting place in the Jacobin Club, in an abandoned Paris monastery. Led by Maximilien Robespierre, the Jacobins called for democratic solutions to France’s problems and spoke for the urban poor and French peasantry. The Jacobins took control of the convention, and France itself, from 1793 to 1794. As Robespierre became increasingly concerned with counterrevolutionary threats, he instituted a brutal period of public executions known as the Reign of Terror.

Limited Monarchy

Also known as constitutional monarchy, a system of government in which a king or queen reigns as head of state but with power that is limited by real power lying in a legislature and an independent court system.


The form of government, common to most European countries at the time of the French Revolution, in which one king or queen, from a designated royal dynasty, holds control over policy and has the final say on all such matters. In France, the Bourbon family held the monarchy, with Louis XVI as king at the time of the Revolution.

National Assembly

The name given to the Third Estate after it separated from the Estates-General in 1789. As a body, the National Assembly claimed to legitimately represent the French population. The assembly dissolved in 1791 so that new elections could take place under the new constitution.

National Convention

The body that replaced the Legislative Assembly following a successful election in 1792. As one of its first actions, the convention declared the French monarchy abolished on September 21, 1792, and on the following day declared France a republic. Though originally dominated by moderates, the convention became controlled by radical Jacobins in 1793.


A set of thirteen provincial judicial boards—one based in Paris and the other twelve in major provincial cities—that constituted the independent judiciary of France. The parlements held the power of recording royal decrees, meaning that if a parlement refused to record an edict, the edict would never be implemented in that district.

Reign of Terror

A ten-month period of oppression and execution from late 1793 to mid-1794, organized by Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety to suppress any potential enemies of the radical Revolution. The Reign of Terror ended with the fall of Robespierre, who was arrested and executed in July 1794. Robespierre’s execution ushered in the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794–1795 and the establishment of the Directory as the head of France’s executive government.


Urban workers and peasants, whose name—literally, “without culottes,” the knee-breeches that the privileged wore—signified their wish to distinguish themselves from the high classes. The mob mentality of the sans-culottes constituted the most radical element of the Revolution.

Tennis Court Oath

A June 20, 1789, oath sworn by members of the Third Estate who had just formed the National Assembly and were locked out of the meeting of the Estates-General. Meeting at a nearby tennis court, these members of the Third Estate pledged to remain together until they had drafted and passed a new constitution.

Thermidorian Reaction

The post–Reign of Terror period ushered in by the execution of Maximilien Robespierre in July 1794 and the reassertion of moderate power over the French Revolution. The Thermidorian Reaction brought the Revolution’s focus back to the first stage of moderate changes designed to benefit the business classes of French society.

Third Estate

One of the three estates in the Estates-General, consisting of the commoners of France, whether rich merchants or poor peasants. Despite the fact that it constituted the vast majority of the French population, the Third Estate had just one vote in the Estates-General—the same vote that the much smaller First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility) each had. Frustrated with its political impotence, the Third Estate broke from the Estates-General on June 17, 1789, and declared itself the National Assembly.


The palace in Paris in which King Louis XVI and his family were placed under house arrest after they were forcibly taken from their court at Versailles. The point of removing the royal family to Paris was to allow the people to keep a close watch on their actions.


The royal palace built by King Louis XIV a few miles outside of Paris. Known for its extraordinary splendor, extravagance, and immense size, Versailles was the home of the king, queen, and all members of the royal family, along with high government officials and select nobles. On October 5, 1789, a mob of angry and hungry French women marched on Versailles, bringing the royal family back to Paris to deal with the food shortage.


France’s Financial Crisis: 1783–1788

Event Outline

1756–1783 France builds up enormous debt by participating in the Seven Years’ War and American Revolution

November 2, 1783 Louis XVI appoints Charles de Calonne controller general of finance

February 22, 1787 Assembly of Notables convenes, rejects Calonne’s debt-relief proposals

Key People

Louis XVI - French king of the Bourbon dynasty who took the throne in 1774; inherited massive debt problems but was unable to fix them

Marie-Antoinette -  Wife of Louis XVI, whose self-indulgent tendencies became a symbol of royal excess and extravagance

Charles de Calonne -  Controller general of finances appointed by Louis XVI in 1783; recommended across-the-board taxation as the only way to salvage France’s dire financial situation

The French Monarchy and Parlements

The French royalty in the years prior to the French Revolution were a study in corruption and excess. France had long subscribed to the idea of divine right, which maintained that kings were selected by God and thus perpetually entitled to the throne. This doctrine resulted in a system of absolute rule and provided the commoners with absolutely no input into the governance of their country.

In addition, there was no universal law in France at the time. Rather, laws varied by region and were enforced by the local parlements (provincial judicial boards), guilds, or religious groups. Moreover, each of those sovereign courts had to approve any royal decrees by the king if these decrees were to come into effect. As a result, the king was virtually powerless to do anything that would have a negative effect on any regional government. Ironically, this “checks and balances” system operated in a government rife with corruption and operating without the support of the majority.

Power Abuses and Unfair Taxation

The monarchs of the Bourbon dynasty, the French nobility, and the clergy became increasingly egregious in their abuses of power in the late 1700s. They bound the French peasantry into compromising feudal obligations and refused to contribute any tax revenue to the French government. This blatantly unfair taxation arrangement did little to endear the aristocracy to the common people.

France’s Debt Problems

A number of ill-advised financial maneuvers in the late 1700s worsened the financial situation of the already cash-strapped French government. France’s prolonged involvement in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 drained the treasury, as did the country’s participation in the American Revolution of 1775–1783. Aggravating the situation was the fact that the government had a sizable army and navy to maintain, which was an expenditure of particular importance during those volatile times. Moreover, in the typical indulgent fashion that so irked the common folk, mammoth costs associated with the upkeep of King Louis XVI’s extravagant palace at Versailles and the frivolous spending of the queen, Marie-Antoinette, did little to relieve the growing debt. These decades of fiscal irresponsibility were one of the primary factors that led to the French Revolution. France had long been recognized as a prosperous country, and were it not for its involvement in costly wars and its aristocracy’s extravagant spending, it might have remained one.

Charles de Calonne

Finally, in the early 1780s, France realized that it had to address the problem, and fast. First, Louis XVI appointed Charles de Calonne controller general of finances in 1783. Then, in 1786, the French government, worried about unrest should it to try to raise taxes on the peasants, yet reluctant to ask the nobles for money, approached various European banks in search of a loan. By that point, however, most of Europe knew the depth of France’s financial woes, so the country found itself with no credibility.

Louis XVI asked Calonne to evaluate the situation and propose a solution. Charged with auditing all of the royal accounts and records, Calonne found a financial system in shambles. Independent accountants had been put in charge of various tasks regarding the acquisition and distribution of government funds, which made the tracking of such transactions very difficult. Furthermore, the arrangement had left the door wide open to corruption, enabling many of the accountants to dip into government funds for their own use. As for raising new money, the only system in place was taxation. At the time, however, taxation only applied to peasants. The nobility were tax-exempt, and the parlementswould never agree to across-the-board tax increases.

The Assembly of Notables

Calonne finally convinced Louis XVI to gather the nobility together for a conference, during which Calonne and the king could fully explain the tenuous situation facing France. This gathering, dubbed the Assembly of Notables, turned out to be a virtual who’s who of people who didn’t want to pay any taxes. After giving his presentation, Calonne urged the notables either to agree to the new taxes or to forfeit their exemption to the current ones. Unsurprisingly, the notables refused both plans and turned against Calonne, questioning the validity of his work. He was dismissed shortly thereafter, leaving France’s economic prospects even grimmer than before.

Revolution on the Horizon

By the late 1780s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the system in place under the Old Regime in France simply could not last. It was too irresponsible and oppressed too many people. Furthermore, as the result of the Enlightenment, secularism was spreading in France, religious thought was becoming divided, and the religious justifications for rule—divine right and absolutism—were losing credibility. The aristocracy and royalty, however, ignored these progressive trends in French thought and society. Rather, the royals and nobles adhered even more firmly to tradition and archaic law. As it would turn out, their intractability would cost them everything that they were trying to preserve.

The Bourgeoisie

Although many accounts of the French Revolution focus on the French peasantry’s grievances—rising food prices, disadvantageous feudal contracts, and general mistreatment at the hands of the aristocracy—these factors actually played a limited role in inciting the Revolution. For all of the hardships that they endured, it wasn’t the peasants who jump-started the Revolution. Rather, it was the wealthy commoners—the bourgeoisie—who objected most vocally to the subpar treatment they were receiving. The bourgeoisie were generally hardworking, educated men who were well versed in the enlightened thought of the time. Although many of the wealthier members of the bourgeoisie had more money than some of the French nobles, they lacked elite titles and thus were subjected to the same treatment and taxation as even the poorest peasants. It was the bourgeoisie that would really act as a catalyst for the Revolution, and once they started to act, the peasants were soon to follow.

The Estates-General: 1789


May 5, 1789 Louis XVI summons Estates-General for its first meeting since 1614

June 17 Third Estate breaks away from Estates-General, establishes itself as National Assembly

Key people

Jacques Necker - Director general of finance who returned to office after Calonne’s dismissal

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès -  Author of influential “What Is the Third Estate?” pamphlet, which influenced the Third Estate to break off from the Estates-General

Necker and the Estates-General

In the wake of Calonne’s dismissal, Louis XVI brought back Swiss banker Jacques Necker, who had previously served a ten-year stint as director general of finance. After assessing the situation, Necker insisted that Louis XVI call together the Estates-General, a French congress that originated in the medieval period and consisted of three estates. The First Estate was the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate effectively the rest of French society.

On May 5, 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General. Almost immediately, it became apparent that this archaic arrangement—the group had last been assembled in 1614—would not sit well with its present members. Although Louis XVI granted the Third Estate greater numerical representation, the Parlement of Paris stepped in and invoked an old rule mandating that each estate receive one vote, regardless of size. As a result, though the Third Estate was vastly larger than the clergy and nobility, each estate had the same representation—one vote. Inevitably, the Third Estate’s vote was overridden by the combined votes of the clergy and nobility.

Resentment Against the Church

The fact that the Estates-General hadn’t been summoned in nearly 200 years probably says a thing or two about its effectiveness. The First and Second Estates—clergy and nobility, respectively—were too closely related in many matters. Both were linked intrinsically to the royalty and shared many similar privileges. As a result, their votes often went the same way, automatically neutralizing any effort by the Third Estate.

Additionally, in a country as secularized as France at the time, giving the church a full third of the vote was ill-advised: although France’s citizens would ultimately have their revenge, at the time the church’s voting power just fostered more animosity. There were numerous philosophers in France speaking out against religion and the mindless following that it supposedly demanded, and many resented being forced to follow the decisions of the church on a national scale.

Divides in the Third Estate

Beyond the chasm that existed between it and the other estates, the Third Estate itself varied greatly in socioeconomic status: some members were peasants and laborers, whereas others had the occupations, wealth, and lifestyles of nobility. These disparities between members of the Third Estate made it difficult for the wealthy members to relate to the peasants with whom they were grouped. Because of these rifts, the Estates-General, though organized to reach a peaceful solution, remained in a prolonged internal feud. It was only through the efforts of men such as Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès (see below) that the members of the Third Estate finally realized that fighting among themselves was fruitless and that if they took advantage of the estate’s massive size, they would be a force that could not be ignored.

“What Is the Third Estate?”

To add insult to injury, delegates from the Third Estate were forced to wear traditional black robes and to enter the Estates-General meeting hall by a side door. Necker tried to placate the Third Estate into tolerating these slights until some progress could be made, but his diplomatic efforts accomplished little. Fed up with their mistreatment, activists and pamphleteers of the Third Estate took to the streets in protest.

The most famous effort was a pamphlet written by liberal clergy member Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès titled “What Is the Third Estate?” In response to his own question, Sieyès answered, “The Nation.” The pamphlet articulated the pervasive feeling in France that though a small minority might be in control, the country truly belonged to the masses. Sieyès’s pamphlet compelled the Third Estate to action, inciting the masses to take matters into their own hands if the aristocracy failed to give them due respect.

The Third Estate’s Revolt

As the impasse in the Estates-General continued, the Third Estate became more convinced of its entitlement to liberty. Seeing that neither the king nor the other estates would acquiesce to its requests, the Third Estate began to organize within itself and recruit actively from the other estates. On June 17, 1789, bolstered by communitywide support, the Third Estate officially broke away from the Estates-General and proclaimed itself the National Assembly. In so doing, it also granted itself control over taxation. Shortly thereafter, many members of the other estates joined the cause.

Blaming the Aristocracy

Although the reconvening of the Estates-General presented France’s aristocracy and clergy with a perfect opportunity to appease the Third Estate and maintain control, they focused only on maintaining the dominance of their respective estates rather than address the important issues that plagued the country. When the Estates-General convened, the Third Estate wasn’t seeking a revolution—just a bit of liberty and a more equitable tax burden. The entire Revolution might have been avoided had the first two estates simply acquiesced to some of the Third Estate’s moderate proposals. Instead, they fell back on tradition and their posh lifestyles and lit the revolutionary flame.


The National Assembly: 1789–1791


June 20, 1789 National Assembly members take Tennis Court Oath, pledging to create new constitution

July 14 Mob of Parisian citizens storms Bastille prison and confiscates weapons

July 20 Rural violence of Great Fear breaks out; peasants lash out at feudal landlords for several weeks

August 4 August Decrees release peasants and farmers from feudal contracts

August 26 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued

October 5 Parisian women march to Versailles in response to food crisis

February 1790 Government confiscates church property

July 12 Civil Constitution of the Clergy issued

Key People

Louis XVI - French king; was forced to accept August Decrees and Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen when angry mob of women stormed Versailles in 1789

Jacques Necker - Director general of finance sacked by Louis XVI in 1789; public outrage prompted his reinstatement

Marquis de Lafayette -  Nobleman who sided with National Assembly and created French National Guard

The Tennis Court Oath

Three days after splitting from the Estates-General, the delegates from the Third Estate (now the National Assembly) found themselves locked out of the usual meeting hall and convened on a nearby tennis court instead. There, all but one of the members took the Tennis Court Oath, which stated simply that the group would remain indissoluble until it had succeeded in creating a new national constitution.

Upon hearing of the National Assembly’s formation, King Louis XVI held a general gathering in which the government attempted to intimidate the Third Estate into submission. The assembly, however, had grown too strong, and the king was forced to recognize the group. Parisians had received word of the upheaval, and revolutionary energy coursed through the city. Inspired by the National Assembly, commoners rioted in protest of rising prices. Fearing violence, the king had troops surround his palace at Versailles.

The Bastille

Blaming him for the failure of the Estates-General, Louis XVI once again dismissed Director General of Finance Jacques Necker. Necker was a very popular figure, and when word of the dismissal reached the public, hostilities spiked yet again. In light of the rising tension, a scramble for arms broke out, and on July 13, 1789, revolutionaries raided the Paris town hall in pursuit of arms. There they found few weapons but plenty of gunpowder. The next day, upon realizing that it contained a large armory, citizens on the side of the National Assembly stormed the Bastille, a medieval fortress and prison in Paris.

Although the weapons were useful, the storming of the Bastille was more symbolic than it was necessary for the revolutionary cause. The revolutionaries faced little immediate threat and had such intimidating numbers that they were capable of nonviolent coercion. By storming one of Paris’s most notorious state prisons and hoarding weapons, however, the revolutionaries gained a symbolic victory over the Old Regime and conveyed the message that they were not to be trifled with.

Lafayette and the National Guard

As the assembly secured control over the capital, it seemed as if peace might still prevail: the previous governmental council was exiled, and Necker was reinstated. Assembly members assumed top government positions in Paris, and even the king himself traveled to Paris in revolutionary garb to voice his support. To bolster the defense of the assembly, the Marquis de Lafayette, a noble, assembled a collection of citizens into the French National Guard. Although some blood had already been shed, the Revolution seemed to be subsiding and safely in the hands of the people.

The Great Fear

For all the developments that were taking place in Paris, the majority of the conflicts erupted in the struggling countryside. Peasants and farmers alike, who had been suffering under high prices and unfair feudal contracts, began to wreak havoc in rural France. After hearing word of the Third Estate’s mistreatment by the Estates-General, and feeding off of the infectious revolutionary spirit that permeated France, the peasants amplified their attacks in the countryside over the span of a few weeks, sparking a hysteria dubbed the Great Fear. Starting around July 20, 1789, and continuing through the first days of August, the Great Fear spread through sporadic pockets of the French countryside. Peasants attacked country manors and estates, in some cases burning them down in an attempt to escape their feudal obligations.

The August Decrees

Though few deaths among the nobility were reported, the National Assembly, which was meeting in Versailles at the time, feared that the raging rural peasants would destroy all that the assembly had worked hard to attain. In an effort to quell the destruction, the assembly issued the August Decrees, which nullified many of the feudal obligations that the peasants had to their landlords. For the time being, the countryside calmed down.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen

Just three weeks later, on August 26, 1789, the assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a document that guaranteed due process in judicial matters and established sovereignty among the French people. Influenced by the thoughts of the era’s greatest minds, the themes found in the declaration made one thing resoundingly clear: every person was a Frenchman—and equal. Not surprisingly, the French people embraced the declaration, while the king and many nobles did not. It effectively ended the ancien régime and ensured equality for the bourgeoisie. Although subsequent French constitutions that the Revolution produced would be overturned and generally ignored, the themes of the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen would remain with the French citizenry in perpetuity.

The Food Crisis

Despite the assembly’s gains, little had been done to solve the growing food crisis in France. Shouldering the burden of feeding their families, it was the French women who took up arms on October 5, 1789. They first stormed the city hall in Paris, amassing a sizable army and gathering arms. Numbering several thousand, the mob marched to Versailles, followed by the National Guard, which accompanied the women to protect them. Overwhelmed by the mob, King Louis XVI, effectively forced to take responsibility for the situation, immediately sanctioned the August Decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The next day, having little choice, the royal family accompanied the crowd back to Paris. To ensure that he was aware of the woes of the city and its citizens, the king and his family were “imprisoned” in the Tuileries Palace in the city

Though they focused on the king as figurehead, most of the revolutionaries were more against the nobles than the king. Everyday people in France had limited interaction with royalty and instead placed blame for the country’s problems on the shoulders of local nobility. A common phrase in France at the time was, “If only the king knew,” as though he were ignorant of the woes of the people. It was partly owing to this perspective that the assembly attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy alongside the king, rather than simply oust him and rule the nation itself.

The National Assembly and the Church

Over the next two years, the National Assembly took a number of progressive actions to address the failing economy and tighten up the country. A number of them targeted the Catholic Church, which was at the time one of the largest landholders in France. To jump-start the economy, the state in February 1790 confiscated all the church’s land and then used it to back a new French currency called the assignat. In the beginning, at least, the assignat financed the Revolution and acted as an indicator of the economy’s strength.

A short time later, in July 1790, the French Catholic Church itself fell prey to the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, a decree by the National Assembly that established a national church system with elected clergy. The country was divided into eighty-three departments, each of which was governed by an elected official and represented by an elected bishop. The voting for these positions was open to anyone who met certain relatively lenient criteria, such as property ownership.

The Assembly’s Tenuous Control

Despite the National Assembly’s progress, weaknesses were already being exposed within France, and the Great Fear and the women’s march on Versailles demonstrated that perhaps the assembly didn’t have as much control as it liked to think. The revolution that the assembly was overseeing in Paris was run almost exclusively by the bourgeoisie, who were far more educated and intelligent than the citizens out in the country. Although the August Decrees helped assuage the peasants’ anger, their dissatisfaction would become a recurring problem. The differing priorities that were already apparent foreshadowed future rifts.

Most notable among the assembly’s controversial priorities was its treatment of the churches. Although France as a whole was largely secular, large pockets of devoutly religious citizens could be found all over the country. By dissolving the authority of churches, especially the Catholic Church—a move that greatly angered the pope—the assembly seemed to signal to the religious French that they had to make a choice: God or the Revolution. Although this was likely not the case, and certainly not the assembly’s intent, it nevertheless upset many people in France.

Escalating Violence: 1791–1792


June 20–21, 1791 Louis XVI and his family flee Paris but are caught near the Austrian border

August 27 Austria and Prussia issue Declaration of Pillnitz

September 14 Louis XVI approves National Assembly’s new constitution, which establishes constitutional monarchy

April 20, 1792 France declares war on Austria

August 10 Jacobins and sans-culottes storm Tuileries; depose and arrest Louis XVI

September 2 Sansculottes initiate prison massacres in Paris

Key People

Louis XVI - French king; fled Paris with family in June 1791 but was captured near border with Austria

Jacques-Pierre Brissot -  Member of Legislative Assembly and National Convention; driving force behind moderate group called the Girondins

Sansculottes - General term for underrepresented French laborers and commoners who, frustrated that their efforts were largely unrewarded and concerns unrecognized, resorted to mob violence

Louis XVI’s Flight

Although King Louis XVI maintained a supportive front toward the Revolution, he remained in contact with the rulers of Austria, Prussia, and Sweden, asking for their help in restoring his family to power. In late June 1791, Louis XVI and his family attempted to escape to the Austrian border, where they were supposed to meet the Austrian army and arrange an attack on the revolutionaries. However, the runaway party was caught just before reaching the border and brought back to Tuileries in Paris.

This escape attempt considerably weakened the king’s position and lowered his regard in the eyes of the French people. Beforehand, although he had little real power remaining, he at least still had the faith of his country. The king’s attempt to run away, however, made it clear to skeptics that he was a reluctant associate at best and would turn his back on the constitution and its system of limited monarchy at any moment. The more radical revolutionaries, who had never wanted a constitutional monarchy, trusted the king even less after his attempted escape. The more moderate revolutionaries, who once were staunch proponents of the constitutional monarchy, found themselves hard-pressed to defend a situation in which a monarch was abandoning his responsibilities. Therefore, although Louis XVI constitutionally retained some power after being returned to Paris, it was clear that his days were numbered.

The Declaration of Pillnitz

In response to Louis XVI’s capture and forced return to Paris, Prussia and Austria issued the Declaration of Pillnitz on August 27, 1791, warning the French against harming the king and demanding that the monarchy be restored. The declaration also implied that Prussia and Austria would intervene militarily in France if any harm came to the king.

Prussia and Austria’s initial concern was simply for Louis XVI’s well-being, but soon the countries began to worry that the French people’s revolutionary sentiment would infect their own citizens. The Declaration of Pillnitz was issued to force the French Revolutionaries to think twice about their actions and, if nothing else, make them aware that other countries were watching the Revolution closely.

The Constitution of 1791

In September 1791, the National Assembly released its much-anticipated Constitution of 1791, which created a constitutional monarchy, or limited monarchy, for France. This move allowed King Louis XVI to maintain control of the country, even though he and his ministers would have to answer to new legislature, which the new constitution dubbed the Legislative Assembly. The constitution also succeeded in eliminating the nobility as a legal order and struck down monopolies and guilds. It established a poll tax and barred servants from voting, ensuring that control of the country stayed firmly in the hands of the middle class.

The Jacobins and Girondins

Divisions quickly formed within the new Legislative Assembly, which coalesced into two main camps. On one side were the Jacobins, a group of radical liberals—consisting mainly of deputies, leading thinkers, and generally progressive society members—who wanted to drive the Revolution forward aggressively. The Jacobins found Louis’s actions contemptible and wanted to forgo the constitutional monarchy and declare France a republic.

Disagreeing with the Jacobins’ opinions were many of the more moderate members of the Legislative Assembly, who deemed a constitutional monarchy essential. The most notable of these moderates was Jacques-Pierre Brissot. His followers were thus labeled Brissotins, although they became more commonly known as Girondins.

Many historians have attributed the rivalry of the Jacobins and Girondins to class differences, labeling the Jacobins the poorer, less prestigious of the two groups. However, a number of other factors were involved, as the two groups came from vastly different geographic and ideological backgrounds. The Jacobins were modern urban idealists: they wanted change and independence from any semblance of the ancien régime. Deemed radicals, they were students of the enlightened, progressive thought of the time. But the Jacobins, though wanting independence and equality, were more conservative and loyal and harbored less contempt for the monarchy. These fundamental differences would cause a schism that future revolutionary governments in France could not overcome.

The Sansculottes

Meanwhile, in cities throughout France, a group called the sans-culottes began to wield significant and unpredictable influence. The group’s name—literally, “without culottes,” the knee breeches that the privileged wore—indicated their disdain for the upper classes. The sans-culottes consisted mainly of urban laborers, peasants, and other French poor who disdained the nobility and wanted to see an end to privilege. Over the summer of 1792, the sans-culottes became increasingly violent and difficult to control.

War Against Austria and Prussia

Although the Girondin leader, Brissot, wanted Louis XVI to remain in power, he felt threatened by the Declaration of Pillnitz and rallied the Legislative Assembly to declare war against Austria on April 20, 1792. Austria and Prussia had anticipated this kind of reaction and already had their troops massed along the French border. The French army, unprepared as it was for the battle, was trounced and fled, leaving the country vulnerable to counterattack. In the wake of the embarrassing French defeat, Louis XVI saw to it that Brissot was removed from command. In response, a mob of Girondins marched on Tuileries on June 20 and demanded that Brissot be reinstated. The demand was ignored.

The Storming of Tuileries

Just weeks later, on August 10, anti-monarchy Jacobins rallied together a loyal crew of sans-culottes that stormed Tuileries outright, trashing the palace and capturing Louis XVI and his family as they tried to escape. The mob then arrested the king for treason. A month after that, beginning on September 2, 1972, the hysterical sans-culottes, having heard rumors of counterrevolutionary talk, raided Paris’s prisons and murdered more than 1,000 prisoners.

The Danger of the Sansculottes

If there was any indication throughout the Revolution that no governing body truly had control, it could be found with the sans-culottes. Members of this group were easily swayed and often fell into bouts of mob hysteria, which made them extraordinarily difficult to manage. The bourgeoisie groups “in charge” of the Revolution originally hoped to harness the power of the masses for their own bidding, but it soon became apparent that the sans-culottes were uncontrollable.

The Girondins, who had originally rallied the sans-culottes to their cause, quickly found that the rabble was more radical than they had expected. The massacres that began on September 2 revealed the true power of the sans-culottes and showed the chaos they were capable of creating. The group, after all, consisted of poor workers and peasants who wanted privilege outright eliminated. Despite all their contributions to the revolutionary cause, they still found themselves with little input into the government, which was dominated by bourgeoisie far richer than they. Having gained their freedom from monarchial oppression, the sans-culottes switched their cry from “Liberty!” to “Equality!”

Failures of the Legislative Assembly

Arguably, the Legislative Assembly’s complacency in 1792 opened the door to the violence that followed. The assembly did have some cause to rest on its laurels: the Revolution had accomplished everything that had been desired, and the new government had a binder full of legislation to back it up. But the confidence bred by this success was misleading: the assembly had not organized an army that was capable of taking on the combined forces of Austria and Prussia, nor had it sufficiently calmed its own internal feuds. The new government was still far too unsteady even to consider going to war—yet it did, and was soundly defeated. Even more peculiar was the fact that Brissot and his Girondin associates were radical enough to want to go to war, yet conservative enough to do so only under the rule of a constitutional monarch—the same monarch over whom the war was being fought. It was a baffling decision and left little question as to why the Jacobins and other more radical elements wanted to take control.

The Reign of Terror and the Thermidorian Reaction: 1792–1795


September 22, 1792 France is declared a republic

January 21, 1793 Louis XVI is executed

April 6 National Convention creates Committee of Public Safety

June 24 Constitution of 1793 is established

September 5 Reign of Terror begins; lasts more than ten months

September 29 Robespierre’s Maximum implements ceiling on prices

October 16 Marie-Antoinette is executed

July 27, 1794 Robespierre is overthrown

December 24 Maximum is repealed; prices skyrocket

Key People

Louis XVI - French king; executed by new republican government in January 1793

Maximilien Robespierre -  Jacobin leader who seized control of National Convention and Committee of Public Safety; later instituted Reign of Terror, targeting those whose philosophies differed from his own

Lazare Carnot - Military strategist who helped reorganize the French war effort and successfully defended the country against foreign invaders

Georges Danton - Longtime Jacobin and close associate of Robespierre who was executed after he began questioning the extremes to which Robespierre was going in the Reign of Terror

The National Convention and the French Republic

In the autumn of 1792, the revolutionary government, having written off the idea of a constitutional monarchy, set about electing a National Convention of delegates to oversee the country. In late September, therefore, the first election took place under the rules of the Constitution of 1791. As it turned out, only a third of the newly elected convention members had sat on a previous assembly, and a great number of new faces belonged to either the Jacobins or the Girondins. The first action of the convention, on September 21, 1792, was to abolish the monarchy. The next day, the Republic of France was founded.

The Execution of Louis XVI

As a sign of the republic’s newfound resolve and contempt for the monarchy, the next proposal before the National Convention was the execution of Louis XVI. Once again, the moderates objected and eventually forced a trial, but the effort was in vain. Louis XVI was ultimately found guilty of treason and, on January 21, 1793, executed at the guillotine. Months later, on October 16, 1793, his wife, Marie-Antoinette, met the same fate.

Symbolically speaking, the declaration of sovereignty and the beheading of the monarch were powerful motivators within France. Unfortunately, the moment of bliss was brief, as the governmental powers quickly realized that all of their achievements were being threatened by internal and external fighting.

The Committee of Public Safety

In the weeks after the execution of the king, the internal and external wars in France continued to grow. Prussian and Austrian forces pushed into the French countryside, and one noted French general even defected to the opposition. Unable to assemble an army out of the disgruntled and protesting peasants, the Girondin-led National Convention started to panic. In an effort to restore peace and order, the convention created the Committee of Public Safety on April 6, 1793, to maintain order within France and protect the country from external threats.

The Jacobins’ Coup

The Committee of Public Safety followed a moderate course after its creation but proved weak and ineffective. After a few fruitless months under the committee, the sans-culottes finally reached their boiling point. They stormed the National Convention and accused the Girondins of representing the aristocracy. Seeing an opportunity, Maximilien Robespierre, the leader of the Jacobins, harnessed the fury of the sans-culottes to take control of the convention, banish the Girondins, and install the Jacobins in power.

Once again, the sans-culottes proved to be a formidable force in effecting change during the Revolution. Already upset about the composition of the National Convention—which remained dominated by middle- and upper-class bourgeoisie and was influenced by big thinkers of the time—they became even more angry upon learning that many of the Girondin leaders expected them to bolster the failing war effort. Sieyès had originally rallied the Third Estate by reminding them that they numbered many and that their numbers gave them strength. This message clearly stuck with the sans-culottes throughout the Revolution, and they took advantage of their strength at every possible opportunity.

The Constitution of 1793

Yet another new constitution, the Constitution of 1793, premiered in June. However, it was quickly overshadowed by the resurgence of the Committee of Public Safety in July, when some of the more radical Jacobin leaders, including Robespierre, installed themselves in charge of the committee and immediately began to make drastic changes. Among the changes was the suspension of many clauses of the new constitution. One of the most sweeping new Jacobin policies was the Maximum, a decree that fixed prices in an attempt to stop the rampant inflation that was ruining the economy.

Although Robespierre soon resorted to extreme measures, his tenure as chairman of the Committee of Public Safety actually began on a productive note. His inspiring, nationalistic propaganda campaign spoke to the disgruntled citizens on their own level. Though he was a lawyer, Robespierre had a middle-class upbringing and could relate to the sans-culottes. His approach to the economy also proved effective in the short run: by using the Maximum to freeze prices, he provided an opportunity for French citizens to get their economic bearings.

Carnot and the Military

In August, military strategist Lazare Carnot was appointed head of the French war effort and immediately set about instituting conscription throughout France. Propaganda and discipline helped tighten and reenergize the nation, particularly in rural areas. Carnot’s effort succeeded, and the newly refreshed army managed to push back the invading Austrian and Prussian forces and reestablish France’s traditional boundaries.

The Reign of Terror

In the autumn of 1793, Robespierre and the Jacobins focused on addressing economic and political threats within France. What began as a proactive approach to reclaiming the nation quickly turned bloody as the government instituted its infamous campaign against internal opposition known as the Reign of Terror.

Beginning in September, Robespierre, under the auspices of the Committee of Public Safety, began pointing an accusing finger at anyone whose beliefs seemed to be counterrevolutionary—citizens who had committed no crime but merely had social or political agendas that varied too much from Robespierre’s. The committee targeted even those who shared many Jacobin views but were perceived as just slightly too radical or conservative. A rash of executions ensued in Paris and soon spread to smaller towns and rural areas.

During the nine-month period that followed, anywhere from 15,000 to 50,000 French citizens were beheaded at the guillotine. Even longtime associates of Robespierre such as Georges Danton, who had helped orchestrate the Jacobin rise to power, fell victim to the paranoia. When Danton wavered in his conviction, questioned Robespierre’s increasingly rash actions, and tried to arrange a truce between France and the warring countries, he himself lost his life to the guillotine, in April 1794.

Public Backlash

Robespierre’s bloody attempt to protect the sanctity of the Revolution had exactly the opposite result. Rather than galvanize his supporters and the revolutionary nation, the Reign of Terror instead prompted a weakening on every front. Indeed, the Terror accomplished almost nothing productive, as Robespierre quickly burned his bridges and killed many former allies. As the mortuaries started to fill up, the commoners shifted their focus from equality to peace.

By the time the French army had almost completely staved off foreign invaders, Robespierre no longer had a justification for his extreme actions in the name of public “safety.” The final straw was his proposal of a “Republic of Virtue,” which would entail a move away from the morals of Christianity and into a new set of values. On July 27, 1794, a group of Jacobin allies arrested Robespierre. Receiving the same treatment that he had mandated for his enemies, he lost his head at the guillotine the following day. Undoubtedly, a collective sigh of relief echoed throughout the country.

The Thermidorian Reaction

With Robespierre out of the picture, a number of the bourgeoisie who had been repressed under the Reign of Terror—many of them Girondins—burst back onto the scene at the National Convention in the late summer of 1794. These moderates freed many of the Jacobins’ prisoners, neutralized the power of the Committee for Public Safety, and had many of Robespierre’s cohorts executed in a movement that became known as the Thermidorian Reaction.

However, the moderate and conservative initiatives that the convention subsequently implemented were aimed at the bourgeoisie and undid real accomplishments that Robespierre and his regime had achieved for the poor. To address economic concerns, for instance, the National Convention did away with price controls and printed more money, which allowed prices to skyrocket. This inflation hit the poor hard, and the peasants attempted yet another revolt. However, lacking a strong leader like Robespierre, the peasant uprising was quickly quashed by the government.


The Directory: 1795–1799


August 22, 1795 Constitution of 1795 is ratified

October National Convention is dissolved in favor of five-man executive Directory and two large legislative bodies

May 1796 Coup plot by Gracchus Babeuf and associates is exposed

September 4, 1797 Coup annuls results of legislative elections, removes two directors from power

October 9, 1799 Napoleon returns to France

November 9 Napoleon overthrows the Directory

Key People

Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès -  Theorist and clergy member who maneuvered his way onto the Directory in May 1799 while plotting with Napoleon, enabling Napoleon to take control upon returning to Paris

Napoleon Bonaparte -  Young military genius who had great successes in military campaigns in Italy before returning to France in October 1799 and becoming military dictator for fifteen years

The New National Convention

The National Convention in the era after Robespierre’s downfall was significantly more conservative than it had been before and deeply entrenched in the values of the moderate middle class. The change was so drastic that once-powerful groups like the sans-culottes and Jacobins were forced underground, and sans-culottes even became a derisive term in France. Meanwhile, the French economy struggled during the winter of 1794–1795, and hunger became widespread.

Although the members of the convention worked diligently to try to establish a new constitution, they faced opposition at every turn. Because many sanctions against the churches had been revoked, the clergy—many of whom were still loyal to the royalty—started to return from exile. Likewise, the Comte de Provence, the younger brother of Louis XVI, declared himself next in line for the throne and, taking the name Louis XVIII, declared to France that royalty would return. (Hopeful French nobles in exile briefly referred to Louis XVI’s young son as “Louis XVII,” but the boy died in prison in June 1795.)

The Constitution of 1795 and the Directory

On August 22, 1795, the convention was finally able to ratify a new constitution, the Constitution of 1795, which ushered in a period of governmental restructuring. The new legislature would consist of two houses: an upper house, called the Council of Ancients, consisting of 250 members, and a lower house, called the Council of Five Hundred, consisting of 500 members. Fearing influence from the left, the convention decreed that two-thirds of the members of the first new legislature had to have already served on the National Convention between 1792 and 1795.

The new constitution also stipulated that the executive body of the new government would be a group of five officers called the Directory. Although the Directory would have no legislative power, it would have the authority to appoint people to fill the other positions within the government, which was a source of considerable power in itself. Annual elections would be held to keep the new government in check.

The dilemma facing the new Directory was a daunting one: essentially, it had to rid the scene of Jacobin influence while at the same time prevent royalists from taking advantage of the disarray and reclaiming the throne. The two-thirds rule was implemented for this reason, as an attempt to keep the same composition like that of the original, moderate-run National Convention. In theory, the new government closely resembled that of the United States, with its checks-and-balances system. As it turned out, however, the new government’s priorities became its downfall: rather than address the deteriorating economic situation in the country, the legislature instead focused on keeping progressive members out. Ultimately, paranoia and attempts at overprotection weakened the group.

Napoleon and the French Army

Meanwhile, fortified by the Committee of Public Safety’s conscription drive of 1793, the French army had grown significantly. While the foundation of the Directory was being laid, the army, having successfully defended France against invasion from Prussia and Austria, kept right on going, blazing its way into foreign countries and annexing land. During the period from 1795 to 1799 in particular, the French army was nearly unstoppable. Napoleon Bonaparte, a young Corsican in charge of French forces in Italy and then Egypt, won considerable fame for himself with a series of brilliant victories and also amassed massive reservoirs of wealth and support as he tore through Europe.

The Directory encouraged this French war effort across Europe, though less as a democratic crusade against tyranny than as a means of resolving the unemployment crisis in France. A large, victorious French army lowered unemployment within France and guaranteed soldiers a steady paycheck to buy the goods they needed to survive. The Directory hoped that this increase in income would encourage an increase in demand, reinvigorating the French economy.

Abuses by the Directory

Unfortunately, it was not long before the Directory began to abuse its power. The results of the elections of 1795 were worrisome to the Directory because a number of moderate royalists won. Although these royalists didn’t exactly qualify as counterrevolutionaries, their loyalty to the Directory was nevertheless suspect.

Then, in May 1796, a group of Jacobins, led by prominent publisher Gracchus Babeuf, met secretly to plan a coup in the hopes of reinstating the government of the Constitution of 1793. Already troubled by the 1795 election results, the Directory squashed the coup plot, had the conspirators arrested, and had Babeuf guillotined.

The Elections and Coup of 1797

As the elections of 1797 drew near, the Directory noticed that significant royalist and neo-Jacobin influences were leaking into the republic, which could have terrible implications for the direction of the legislature. On the other hand, the Directory had to obey the Constitution of 1795 and its mandate for annual elections. It therefore allowed the elections to proceed as scheduled.

However, on September 4, 1797, after the elections did indeed produce decidedly pro-royal and pro-Jacobin results, three members of the Directory orchestrated an overthrow of the legislature, annulling the election results and removing a majority of the new deputies from their seats. The coup plotters also unseated two members of the Directory itself—former military strategist Lazare Carnot being one of them—and installed two new directors, further ensuring that the government would remain staunch in its moderate stance.

Popular Discontent

This new Directory was powerfully conservative, initiating strong new financial policies and cracking down on radicalism through executions and other means. However, the coup and the Directory’s subsequent abuses of power destroyed all of the government’s credibility and further disillusioned the French populace. In the elections of 1798, the left made gains, feeding on public anger about the coup and the reinstatement of the military draft.

The Directory, justifiably fearing the opposition’s gains, once again nullified almost one-third of the election results, ensuring that its own policies would remain strongly in place. Public dissatisfaction was an obvious result, and the next elections would have the lowest turnout of any during the Revolution. Meanwhile, inflation was continuing unchecked, leading the public to wonder whether a royal return to power wouldn’t be more beneficial. Trust and faith in the government neared an all-time low.

French Military Defeats

As the government’s credibility took a turn for the worse, so too did French military fortunes. In 1799, Napoleon’s seemingly unstoppable forward progress ran into a roadblock in Egypt, and France’s army in general faced simultaneous threats from Britain, Austria, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Hearing of the bedlam taking place in mainland Europe, as well as within in his own country, Napoleon deserted his men and headed back to France.

Sieyès and the Coup of 1799

The failing war efforts amplified the French people’s distrust of the Directory, and large majorities of the French public began calling for peace at home and abroad. In May 1799, the upper house of the legislature, the Council of Five Hundred, elected Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès—of “What Is the Third Estate?” fame—to the Directory. This election was the result of extensive maneuvering on Sieyès’s part.

Sieyès, however, did not want to keep his newfound power for himself but instead intended to use it to protect the French government from future instability and disturbances. Therefore, he enlisted the aid of Napoleon, with whom he began to plan a military coup to topple the very same Directory on which Sieyès himself served. This coup materialized on November 9, 1799, when Napoleon, who had returned to France, overthrew the Directory. The next day, Napoleon dissolved the legislature and instituted himself as first consul, the leader of a military dictatorship. By imposing this state of military rule that would grip France for fifteen years, Napoleon effectively ended the French Revolution.

Reasons for the Coup

Although it was the Directory that had encouraged the French army’s actions, ultimately, the army’s unprecedented success in its outward expansion actually ended up working against the Directory rather than for it. Being away from home for so long, the respective companies of soldiers—particularly those under the control of Napoleon—formed their own identities and group philosophies. By splitting the spoils of each successful campaign with his own troops, Napoleon earned the steadfast devotion of what amounted to a private army. This loyalty would prove essential to the success of his eventual coup and the years of military rule and expansionism that would follow.

Sieyès’s political maneuvering may seem inexplicable at first, as he essentially finagled his way into power in the Directory just so he could use that power to remove himself from it. Though that explanation is an oversimplification, it illuminates Sieyès’s priorities and demonstrates the depth of the revolutionary spirit that prompted him to make such a sacrifice. To Sieyès, it was clear that, at the time, a military rule under the watch of someone such as Napoleon would be far more beneficial to France than the argumentative, corrupt, and generally ineffective system that was in place. Indeed, though Napoleon would lead as a dictator of sorts, he would do so with much more respect for the spirit of liberty and equality than the originators of the French Revolution had pursued.

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French Revolution vocabulary - glossary

    Those people who chose to or were forced to live outside France between 1789 and 1814. The fall of the Bastille prompted the first wave, led by the King’s brother, the Count of Artois. Over 150,000 nobles, clergy, and commoners became émigrés during the revolutionary era. The King’s brothers established a royalist center at Coblentz, just across the German border, and set up a military force commanded by the Prince of Condé that existed until 1801 with British, Austrian, and Russian support. However, the émigrés spread far and wide in Europe and the Americas. Upon Louis XVI’s execution, the Count of Provence recognized Louis XVI’s son as Louis XVII with himself as regent. When Louis XVII died in 1795, Provence proclaimed himself King as Louis XVIII with financial support from other European powers. The existence of the émigrés was a major cause of the war that began in the spring of 1792. The property of the émigrés was seized and later sold. Under the Directory, a huge number of émigrés returned to France. Bonaparte promulgated a partial amnesty in October 1800, and in April 1802 all but a thousand émigrés were allowed to return. Later, under the Restoration, Louis XVIII paid compensation of 1 billion francs to émigrés who lost property.
  • ABBÉ
    Literally translated, the word means abbot and in fact, abbé can refer to this church official. However, the title abbé was also given to those who completed the ecclesiastical curriculum in the lycée. For example, for the famous revolutionary abbé Sieyès, the title was merely a distinction as he was definitely not an abbot.
    An old regime advisory body that met twice (February–May 1787 and November–December 1788) for the purpose of approving royal reforms. The King created it to get around the obstreperous parlements. Composed of some of the highest-ranking nobles, clergy, and public officials, the first Assembly refused to endorse many reforms and, with the backing of public opinion, forced the monarchy to call for the Estates-General. This move precipitated the outbreak of the Revolution.
    Paper money based on the confiscation of church lands to liquidate the national debt. Originally not legal tender, the assignats were supposed to carry interest, but far too many assignats were issued, thereby undermining the currency, jump- starting inflation, and encouraging the hoarding of specie. Only in May 1797 were the assignats withdrawn from circulation in the hopes of returning to metallic currency and greater economic stability.
    Old regime law court for civil and criminal cases as well as the jurisdiction under its control. In most of the south, the equivalent institution was called the sénéchaussée. These jurisdictions elected deputies to the Estates-General.
    A medieval fortress-prison in eastern Paris. Frequently used for the subjects/victims of arbitrary royal authority, it held only seven prisoners in 1789. Yet, the Bastille remained a potent symbol of royal power. It was seized by the Paris crowd on 14 July 1789; this event marked the end of the absolute monarchy and the beginning of a new era. The date of the fall of the Bastille is a French national holiday.
    The Bourbon dynasty governed France from 1589 to 1793 and from 1814 to 1830, creating an absolute monarchy that reached its zenith under Louis XIV and was overthrown during the reign of Louis XVI. Louis XVI, Louis XVIII, and Charles X all served as constitutional monarchs. It was Charles X’s attempt to institute a more absolutist monarchy that led to the fall of the Bourbons and their replacement by the House of Orléans.
    Term with many meanings that must be determined from context. Under the old regime, anyone who lived in an urban area was a bourgeois or member of the bourgeoisie, but the term was usually applied only to wealthier people who did no manual labor. Bourgeois were also those who lived from their invested income or property, thus “living nobly” and constituting a distinct social category that had its own representation in municipal politics. In addition, the bourgeoisie often enjoyed certain privileges that were called the “rights of the city.” After the Revolution, the term “bourgeoisie” became associated with the concept of a capitalist social class. In the nineteenth century, most notably in the work of Karl Marx and other socialist writers, the French Revolution was described as a bourgeois revolution in which a capitalist bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal aristocracy in order to remake society according to capitalist interests and values, thereby paving the way for the Industrial Revolution. Thus, when many nineteenth and twentieth century commentators write about the bourgeoisie, they mean something quite different from what contemporaries meant in the eighteenth century. Careful attention to the proper definition in use is essential.
    List of grievances written by each order (estate) for every bailliage and sénéchaussée (as well as a few other institutions) in France as part of the electoral process of the spring of 1789. The cahiers were intended to inform and instruct the deputies of local views and authorize reform. Cahiers of the third estate were written at the parish level, then consolidated at the bailliage/sénéchaussée level by order, providing a superb source for those interested in public opinion in the spring of 1789. Nobles and clergy began on the bailliage/sénéchaussée level.
    A military parade ground in southwestern Paris. Many large revolutionary festivals were held there, and in July 1791 one such demonstration sponsored by the Cordeliers Club resulted in the death of several republicans at the hands of the National Guard. This “massacre” pushed a further wedge between the more conservative constitutional monarchists and democratic republicans and split many of the clubs down the middle, but they emerged more united and more radical.
    A seigneurial tax levied on cultivated land and any other income-producing property. Paid with a fraction of what the land produced, this tax has been likened to a tithe of the Roman Catholic Church.
    Agent of the central government to local administrations. Each municipality, district, and department had a locally elected agent who was to represent and report to the central state. Under the Directory (see Council of Five Hundred and Directory), these agents were named by the central state rather than locally.


    This provisional group was created by the Legislative Assembly after the fall of the monarchy on 15 August 1792. Composed of government ministers, this council was given executive power. After the start of the war in April 1792 and the initial series of reverses, a Committee of General Defense was created on 1 January 1793, to coordinate military matters. In March 1793 this committee formalized the older committee, the Committee of Public Safety, which was dominated by moderates and Girondins named by the National Convention. From 10 July 1793 to 27 July 1794, the Committee of Public Safety had a stable membership of twelve deputies and was delegated the authority to conduct the war and govern France. Working together and sharing responsibility, the so-called Great Committee initiated a number of radical measures to ensure France’s survival ranging from the institution of “Maximums” on wages and prices to a systematic use of Terror to cow opponents. The most notable members of the committee were Maximillien Robespierre, Georges Couthon, Louis-Antoine Saint-Just, and Lazare Carnot, the “organizer of victory.” Ultimately, fears of the continuing Terror, and of Robespierre’s personal power, led to a coup on 9 Thermidor (27 July), which broke the power of the Great Committee. The institution lasted another seventeen months until November 1795, but its powers were restricted to war and diplomacy.
    Most famously, that of Paris, but “commune” was the name given to every municipal government under French control after 14 July. Although new municipal governments arose throughout France in the summer of 1789, the law establishing the new municipalities was not passed until 14 December 1789. Elected through the forty-eight sections (see section), the Paris Commune emerged as a center of radical thought and action. In command of the National Guard of the city, the Commune came to be dominated by the sans-culottes. The Commune precipitated most of the revolutionary journées (days), most notably 10 August 1792, which overthrew the monarchy, and 31 May–2 June 1793, which led to the expulsion of the Girondins from the National Convention. The Paris Commune was a major factor in pushing the central government toward a policy of Terror. Brought under the control of the Committee of Public Safety in December 1793, it throttled back the popular movement. After the Terror, the Paris Commune was stripped of its political role and disappeared completely under Napoleon Bonaparte.
    The National Assembly took this name on 9 July 1789, to reflect its self-appointed mission to write a constitution for France. The Constituent faced numerous crises until it disbanded at the end of September 1791. Not only did the King attempt to undermine the government, he even sought to flee the country for which he was suspended and eventually reinstated. This body also wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Constitution of 1791 and tried to face up to the fiscal crisis by issuing new legal tender, the assignats. The results of these important efforts were quite mixed, but the Constituent Assembly was the first real legislature in French history.
    In the aftermath of the coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November), the Constitution of the Year VIII (1799) gave executive power to three “consuls” who also exercised almost all legislative authority. Provisionally, the first consul was Napoléon Bonaparte; the second, Roger Ducos; and the third, Emannuel- Joseph Sieyès. Later, Ducos and Sieyès were replaced by Jean-Jacques-Réné Cambacérès and Charles-François Lebrun, who did much of the legislative work of government under the Consulate. The Consulate was replaced by the Empire in 1804.


    This post had control over the royal budget, tax collection, and many other aspects of administration. In the eighteenth century, the Controller- General of Finances was almost a prime minister. Under Louis XVI, many reform efforts emanated from this office.
    A Paris political society that had a more popular orientation than the Jacobins. Officially named the Society of the Friends of the Rights of Man and Citizen, it met in a former Franciscan monastery on the rue des Cordeliers. Although expelled from the building, the club kept the nickname. The Cordeliers section, led by Georges-Jacques Danton, Jean- Paul Marat, and Camille Desmoulins, spearheaded democratic agitation in Paris in 1789–90. When the sections were created, the club soon dominated them. Women played a prominent role in the club. In the summer of 1791, the Cordeliers again championed democratization, this time of the new French constitution. Delegates met with a crowd on 17 July 1791, on the Champ de Mars, but the crowd was dispersed by the National Guard. Subsequent repression focused on the club. Restored to prominence by the summer of 1792, the Cordeliers were at the heart of the movement that overthrew the monarchy on 10 August, called for the election of the National Convention and the widening of the suffrage to include all men. The Cordeliers also played an important role in the expulsion of the Girondins from the National Convention in May–June 1793 as they came under the influence of first the Enragés and then Jacques-Réné Hébert. In Ventôse, Year II (March 1794), the club was purged and the Hébertistes sent to the guillotine. The club then submitted to the Jacobins, and a few members continued to meet until the spring of 1795, but by this point the club had little influence.
    Old regime unpaid labor service. The royal corvée was levied for the construction and upkeep of royal roads and the seigneurial corvée was for local labor needs. The former was newer and heavier than the latter, which almost never averaged more than four days a year. Both were primary targets of the cahiers de doléance, written in the spring of 1789 as part of the election to the Estates-General, and were abolished that summer.
    The upper house of the legislature established by the Constitution of 1795. The Council of Five Hundred was the lower house. Deputies were elected (indirectly) to three-year terms. There was a major shift in the political views of the deputies selected in each election. Royalists did well in the Year V (1797), and the Jacobins recovered in the Year VI (1798). Each time the executive, known as the Directory, moved to arrest or exclude significant numbers of deputies. The councils staged their own coup in June 1799. Dissatisfied, a group led by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès in turn planned their own coup, which took place on 18 Brumaire, Year VIII (9 November 1799) that put Napoleon Bonaparte in power.
    The lower house of the legislature established by the Constitution of 1795. The Council of Elders was the upper house. Deputies were elected (indirectly) to three-year terms. There was a major shift in the political views of the deputies selected in each election. Royalists did well in the Year V (1797), and the Jacobins recovered in the Year VI (1798). Each time, the executive, known as the Directory, moved to arrest or exclude significant numbers of deputies. The councils staged their own coup in June 1799. Dissatisfied, a group led by Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, in turn planned their own coup, which took place on 18 Brumaire, Year VIII (9 November 1799) that put Napoleon Bonaparte in power.
    Charles-Philippe, the youngest brother of Louis XVI who later reigned as Charles X (1824–30). A prominent spendthrift and playboy, Artois helped undermine reform efforts in the years before 1789. Artois was the first member of the royal family to emigrate to foreign lands. He sought to convince the crowned heads of Europe to restore Louis XVI’s authority. Intransigent and hotheaded, Artois joined his brother Provence at Coblentz and participated in various royalist conspiracies and military adventures. Upon his brother’s assumption of power in 1814, Artois headed the ultraroyalist faction, and, when he became king, his policies were so extreme that they led to the overthrow of the Bourbon dynasty.
    Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, younger brother of Louis XVI, later ruled as Louis XVIII (1814–24). More liberal than his brothers, Provence was no friend to reform before 1789. He left the country in June 1791, establishing a royalist center at Coblentz. He fomented conspiracies in and outside of France against the revolutionary government and slowly gathered a military force of émigrés. When Louis XVI was executed, Provence declared the dauphin Louis-Charles King as Louis XVII, assuming the post of regent. When the imprisoned Louis XVII died in 1795, Provence declared himself Louis XVIII. Perpetually in exile, he moved from Italy to Poland to England to Germany. In January 1814, he declared himself willing to accept some of the revolution’s changes, paving the way for the Charter of 1814 and the Restoration of the Bourbons.
    A person born in a European colony of either European or African parentage. The term was used to distinguish those born in the colonies from both aboriginal peoples and those who came directly from Europe or Africa. The word was also used to refer to languages developed in the New World out of a mixture of European and African roots.
    Heir of the body to the King of France. Successively in this period: Louis-Auguste (1769–74), grandson of Louis XV who became Louis XVI; and Louis-Charles (1785–95), declared King as Louis XVII in January 1793.
    Unit of copper money during the old regime and equal to 1/240th of a livre. Twelve deniers made up a sou and 20 sous made up a livre. Prior to the Revolution, journeymen outside of Paris might make around 200 livres annually while provincial attorneys earned around 2,000 livres.
    This five-member group functioned as the executive for the governmental system created by the Constitution of 1795. As its most visible component, the Directory gave its name to the entire government. It existed from October 1795 to November 1799, when it was overthrown by Napoléon Bonaparte with the assistance of one of the directors, Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès. The directors staged a series of coups in Fructidor Year V (August-September 1797) and Floréal Year VI (April-May 1798) to overturn electoral results that they did not like, and the legislature purged the directors in Prairial Year VII. The Directory consolidated many of the gains of the first years of the Revolution and prosecuted the war successfully with the help of its brilliant young general Napoléon Bonaparte, but proved incapable of protecting the republic.


    An old regime representative body that last met in 1614, which grouped together the three orders or estates of the kingdom: clergy, nobility, and everybody else. This “Third Estate” made up 95 percent of the population. Each order had one vote. The powers of the body were vague, but contemporaries believed they had the right to deny new tax appropriations. When the monarchy’s fiscal problems left it with almost no other choices, Louis XVI called for the convening of the Estates-General in May 1789. He also asked that each order meet at the parish level and draw up cahiers [notebooks] that would express their grievances. This request to consult public opinion and the protracted electoral process were crucial to politicization. At the same time, as the parlements inveighed for the “forms of 1614,” the Third Estate would always be outvoted by the two privileged orders that paid few taxes. Reformers called for both the “doubling of the third,” meaning that this group would comprise half the assembly and for “voting by head.” The King granted the former but not the latter, which deadlocked the Estates-General in May and June until a group of deputies declared themselves the “National Assembly” on 17 June 1789, in the belief that this was where sovereignty truly lay.
    A political club founded in the summer of 1791, officially known as the Society of the Friends of the Constitution and sitting at the Feuillant (convent). After the Champ de Mars “massacre” of 17 July 1791, those deputies who had been members of the Jacobins withdrew and formed their own club, the Feuillants, which dominated political affairs in Paris that summer. Slowly the rump of the Jacobins recovered the initiative by developing their popular appeal. By the spring of 1792, the club had dwindled into insignificance.
    A non-white person who was free and not slave in legal status. The categories of free black and mulatto overlapped but were not identical. Mulatto referred to racial background; free black referred to legal status. Included among free blacks were all those with any African blood who were free. Thus free mulattos would be counted among free blacks but slave mulattos would not. Some free blacks were not mulattos but rather the offspring of two African parents who had gained their freedom.
    A method of dating set up by the Jacobin government in October 1793 to give France a time system reflective of the new political realities. The Jacobins retrospectively set the first day of the first year as 22 September 1792, the day the French national government abolished the monarchy. Each year thus began in September, and the calendar endured into the Napoleonic era before it was abandoned.Revolutionary Calendar years were divided into 12 months of 30 days, followed by five or six additional days. The additional days at the end of the year (sans culottides) were Virtue Day, Genius Day, Labor Day, Reason Day, Rewards Day, and Revolution Day (the leap day). Leap years (with a sixth additional day) occurred on years III, VII, and XI.Vendémiaire, the month of vintage, mid-September through mid- October
    Brumaire, the month of fog, mid-October through mid- November
    Frimaire, the month of frost, mid-November through mid- December
    Nivôse, the month of snow, mid-December through mid-January
    Pluviôse, the month of rain, mid-January through mid-February
    Ventôse, the month of wind, mid-February through mid-March
    Germinal, the month of budding, mid-March through mid-April
    Floréal, the month of flowers, mid-April through mid-May
    Prairial, the month of meadows, mid-May through mid-June
    Messidor, the month of harvest, mid-June through mid-July
    Thermidor, the month of heat, mid-July through mid-August
    Fructidor, the month of fruit, mid-August through mid- September, Year I (1792), Year II (1793-94), Year III (1794-95), Year IV (1795-96), Year V (1796-97), Year VI (1797-98), Year VII (1798- 99), Year VIII (1799-1800), Year IX (1800-01), Year X (1801-02), Year XI (1802-03), Year XII (1803-04), Year XIII (1804-05), Year XIV (1805)


A political faction of the Legislative Assembly and National Convention. The Girondins’ name derived from the fact that many prominent deputies in the faction came from the region around Bordeaux, which was the department of the Gironde. However, the term was not commonly used by contemporaries, who denoted this group by the various leaders, most of whom supported liberal economics and representative democracy, not the direct democracy favored by the Paris sections and the Mountain (see Montagnard and Mountain). Some have questioned the coherence of this group, but current scholarship supports the notion of a loose collaboration. The Girondins championed war against Austria in the fall of 1791. As France moved toward war in April 1792, the journalist-deputy Jacques-Pierre Brissot, a prominent Girondin, became the most powerful figure in the Legislative Assembly, and his faction dominated the ministries. After the declaration of the republic, the Girondins slowly fell out of favor in Paris, particularly during the trial of the King in the late fall of 1792. They also lost control of the Convention to the growing “Montagnard” faction. In the spring the Paris sections provoked a crisis in which they forced the National Convention to expel twenty-nine Girondins between 31 May and 2 June 1793, and to destroy the movement politically. During the Terror many more were guillotined, and the faction was suppressed. Many Girondins returned to the Convention after 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) and contributed to the vindictive divisions of the republicans that ultimately allowed Bonaparte to seize power.

    The Habsburg dynasty was the royal family of Austria and its dependencies. The head of the family was also the customary emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a grouping of several hundred principalities in central Europe. Marie Antoinette married Louis-Auguste, the dauphin (heir) of France in 1770 and became Queen in 1775. Her brothers reigned as Emperor and fought a series of five wars against revolutionary and Napoleonic France between 1792 and 1815.
    Chief local representative of the crown administering a généralité which was either a province or a part of a province. Beginning in the 1640s, they oversaw all aspects of royal authority. There were thirty-four in 1789, many of whom were active reformers. Their power was undermined in 1787, paving the way for the provincial unrest and uprisings of 1789.
    The most influential of the political clubs that emerged during the French Revolution. Originally known as the Breton Club, which grouped “patriot” deputies, and renamed “Society of the Friends of the Constitution,” it met at a former convent of the Jacobins on the rue Saint-Honoré that gave them their name. Affiliated clubs sprung up all over France. Initially, the Jacobins had a mostly middle-class membership, but as the Revolution radicalized, the membership reached further down the social scale to include many artisans and shopkeepers. During the trial of the King, moderates who opposed violence were excluded from the Paris club, which became a staunch supporter of the use of terror in defense of the revolutionary government. Despite this embrace of very advanced notions, this association with the government came to distance the club from the popular movement. Increasingly isolated from the sections and the sans-culottes, and even from the National Convention, the Jacobin Club suffered from the fate that befell Robespierre, one of its leading lights on 9 Thermidor (27 July). Public opinion blamed the Jacobins for the Terror, and the club was suppressed on 22 Brumaire Year III (12 November 1794). The meeting place was even abolished and a “White Terror” against former Jacobins emerged in many places. However, the spirit of the Jacobins and Jacobinism survived. A Jacobin movement reemerged under the Directory in defense of the republic and did well in the elections of the Year VI (1798), but this movement was a shadow of its former self and soon faced renewed proscription, first under the Directory and then definitively under Bonaparte. Still today the term “Jacobinism” has meaning as a political commitment to small-propertied ownership of farms and shops.
    A sect within Roman Catholicism named after Cornelius Jansenius, bishop of Ypres in the early seventeenth century. Jansenius advocated predestination based on the ideas of Saint Augustine and strict adherence to moral standards. During the reign of Louis XIV, Jansenism also came to include Gallican ideas, which advocated independence from the primacy of decisions made in Rome. Jansenism challenged that primacy and Roman control over the French church, as well as the strict authority of hierarchical subordination of parish to higher clergy. Jansenists also came to support the constitutional ideas of the judges of the parlements who tried to protect them from the “despotism” of the high clergy and ministers who wanted to stamp out any resistance to the absolute authority of King and altar. Jansenism provided religious justifications for criticism of the monarchy and was used by many who opposed the King or wanted to limit his authority. Thus was undermined part of the consensus that helped maintain the stability of the old regime.
    This body met from 1 October 1791 to 20 September 1792. The deputies were chosen via indirect election and had to face continuing popular unrest and the fact that the executive—Louis XVI—could not be trusted. Since the King appointed ministers and exercised a suspensive veto regularly, the government was often deadlocked, swinging hazardously between dismissed ministers and vetoed initiatives, a fact that added an important impetus to the club movement. The assembly and the King ultimately shared only a desire to go to war with Austria and Prussia, although for different reasons. The assembly wanted to punish monarchs for their support of counterrevolutionaries. Louis XVI was hoping for a war that would enhance his position, either by destroying the Revolution or by showing his skill as commander in chief. War was declaredin March 1792. The continuing obstructions of the King led to the insurrection of 10 August and the overthrow of the monarchy. The Legislative Assembly then called for new elections and voted to disband, leaving a rump of newly appointed ministers to run the war and the government.
    The old regime French pound, roughly equivalent to the franc, divided into 20 sous. See denier.
    Magistrates holding a venal office responsible for dealing with correspondence and complaints addressed to the King. The maîtres des requêtes were frequently used as recruiting grounds for higher office by the King and his ministers.
    Name of a political faction during the Terror. See Mountain.
    Name of a political faction during the Terror. The Mountain, or Montagnards, competed during the Terror against the Girondins, with both trying to attract the Plain. The Mountain was a group of deputies from Paris to the National Convention who sat together on the high benches to the left of the chair’s podium. During the fall of 1792 and particularly during the trial of the King, this group emerged as a faction allied with the Commune of Paris and the popular movement that demanded radical measures, among them the death of the King. The Montagnards fought the Girondins for power in Paris and in the Convention. In between the two factions in the meeting hall of the Convention sat the uncommitted “Plain,” who comprised the majority of deputies. During the trial of the King in which the Mountain led the fight to put the King to death, the Montagnards slowly won influence from the Girondins, and over the course of the spring of 1793, they became the dominant group in the Convention. The term has since been applied to anyone willing to use political terror in the name of a revolutionary cause.
    A person born of mixed race parentage, usually a white European father and a black African mother. Mulattos could be either slave or free in status, and if free could themselves own slaves.
    This body came into being on 17 June 1789, with the renaming of the Estates-General on the motion of the abbé Sieyès. The renaming was effectively a claim that this new body was now sovereign. Initially, it comprised the members of the Third Estate and a few liberal nobles and clergy. When Louis XVI rejected the use of violence and ordered recalcitrant deputies to meet with the National Assembly on 27 June, the National Assembly became legal without resorting to violence. However, just a fortnight later the people of Paris had to rally to save it, ending with the 14 July assault on the Bastille. This body was to function as the legislative branch of government until the end of September 1791 and charged itself with writing a constitution. To reflect that mission, it called itself the National Constituent Assembly.
    Elected in September 1792 to write a constitution that would not include the King, this body held power until 5 Brumaire Year IV (27 October 1795). Elected via universal manhood suffrage, this assembly functioned as both the executive and legislative branches of government. It tried the King, executed him after a lengthy and divisive trial, prosecuted a war with most of Europe, faced enormous fiscal problems and two internal rebellions. In addition, a constitution written and submitted to the public in 1793 was suspended “until the peace.” The depth of these crises led it to resort to a systematic use of Terror as a method of facing the situation. The Convention also delegated much of its power to a twelve-member Committee of Public Safety headed by Maximillien Robespierre for nearly a year in 1793–94, until after the coup of 9 Thermidor (27 July). It took more than a year after the end of the Reign of Terror for the Convention to submit once again to the will of the voters, but it tried to limit continuing factionalism by promulgating a new constitution—that of 1795—and requiring that two-thirds of the deputies to the new legislature be current members of the Convention. Despite concrete achievements, the Convention failed to dampen factional violence and place the republic on secure footing.
    This organization of citizen-soldiers was created in early July 1789 on the suggestion of the electors of the city of Paris. They wanted to replace the traditional bourgeois militia with an organization that would allow them to resist the massing of regular troops by the King. After 14 July, the Marquis de Lafayette was named the organization’s commander. In July and August, cities and towns throughout France imitated Paris, setting up their troops of the National Guard. The guard chose to “federate” and through an invitation of the Paris Commune, representatives of the regular army and municipal National Guards met in Paris on 14 July 1790. This festival of the federation was one of the high points of the early years of the Revolution.
    Old regime France has frequently been described as a society of orders in which individuals and families had certain status in a hierarchy of social categories. Although used interchangeably here and elsewhere with the three estates— clergy, noble, and Third—orders also referred to divisions within the estates. Further, social strata often transcended all these categories, in part because of blurred boundaries between them, making a strict classification by “order” or “estate” difficult. By insisting on electing deputies by estates in the calling of the Estates-General, the government highlighted the tensions between the legal definitions and the actual situation.


A newspaper published most notably by Jacques- René Hébert from 1790 to March 1794, when he was

executed. The paper was named after Père Dûchesne, a fictional character who claimed to speak for the sans-

culottes of Paris and the popular movement more generally. The paper died with its author, but the figure lived

on in French popular culture.

    The thirteen parlements functioned as the supreme courts of appeal. The Parlement of Paris had by far the largest area of competency, with one-third of the territory and perhaps two-thirds of France’s 26 million in 1789, but each of the provinces added to France since the fifteenth century had one. The judges owned their offices, which by the eighteenth century also conferred nobility upon the holder. This ownership, or “venality,” made them very difficult to dismiss. Throughout the eighteenth century, the judges of the parlements sought to limit or overturn those initiatives of the monarchy that they thought impinged upon the system of privileges characteristic of the old regime. Their main weapon in this battle was the remonstrance by which the parlements could refuse to register a royal edict and explain why they refused to do so. Ultimately the King could force registration in a lit de justice, but this was particularly costly.
    Name of a political grouping of uncommitted deputies. See Mountain. The Mountain, or Montagnards, competed during the Terror against the Girondins, with both trying to attract the Plain. The Mountain was a group of deputies from Paris to the National Convention who sat together on the high benches to the left of the chair’s podium. During the fall of 1792 and particularly during the trial of the King, this group emerged as a faction allied with the Commune of Paris and the popular movement that demanded radical measures, among them the death of the King. The Montagnards fought the Girondins for power in Paris and in the Convention. In between the two factions in the meeting hall of the Convention sat the “Plain” who comprised the majority of deputies. During the trial of the King in which the Mountain led the fight to put the King to death, the Montagnards slowly won influence from the Girondins, and over the course of the spring of 1793, they became the dominant group in the Convention. The term has since been applied to anyone willing to use political terror in the name of a revolutionary cause.
    Representative of the central government in each department. Created by the law of 28 Pluviôse, Year VIII (17 February 1800), the prefects exercised nearly despotic power in almost every aspect of administration; as an institution, they remain in existence to this day.
    The parlements’ complaints about a royal edict that explained why they refused to register it. Remonstrances were an important means of publicizing the judges’ resistance to the monarchy and a method of delaying the implementation of measures they opposed.
    Old regime law court for civil and criminal cases in southern France as well as the jurisdiction under its control. In northern France, the equivalent institution was called the bailliage. These jurisdictions elected deputies to the Estates- General.
    The sacraments of Christianity, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, were very much at issue during the 1750s, when the Archbishop of Paris Christophe de Beaumont ordered the clergy not to administer the sacraments to Jansenists. The “refusal of sacraments” controversy between the King and clergy on the one hand and the more popular parlements on the other was instrumental in undermining the theoretical foundations of the absolute monarchy and augmenting the willingness of French elites to resist the demands of crown and altar.
    A social designation for a political position. Based primarily in the working class areas of Paris, the sans- culottes, composed of a wide range of artisans from masters to journeymen, opposed themselves to the educated, well-to-do. Their name, literally without breeches, indicates the commitment to trousers worn by the lower classes. Beyond this oppositional stance, these groups opted for controlled bread prices, small business, and revolutionary justice if necessary. By 1792 they were a powerful force on the Parisian scene and politicians required their support. Eventually they were kingmakers, thrusting the Jacobins into office in 1793. But as the latter exercised power over the next year, they abandoned the sans-culottes, eventually repressing them. Thus they were not available when Robespierre, their closest ally, needed their help as he was being overthrown in 1794. Though weakened, the sans-culottes, reemerged and played a role in the Directory and, as a social ideal, well into the future.
    The section was the basic unit of municipal government in France. The forty-eight sections of Paris were the subunits of the Commune and were known for their militancy. The general assemblies of the sections were the strongholds of the sans-culottes and the club movement. They went into permanent session in July 1792 as a result of the war crisis and met more or less continuously until September 1793, when the number of meetings was limited to two every ten days. It was through the sections that most of the revolutionary journées (days) were organized and executed.
    Owner of a property or legal right with certain other rights attached to it, divided into useful rights: notably the right to command days of labor from those living on the land, to levy taxes or payments in kind, or to have exclusive access to a hunting ground, and honorific rights. Seigneurs did not have to be nobles. The seigneur could be a member of the clergy or a commoner without any change in the rights that went with the land.
    Set up by the Constitution of the Year VIII (1800), and serving for life, the Senate chose the members of the Legislative Body and Tribunate. In 1802 Bonaparte set up “senatorships” that came with land and a manorial house. The Senate was Bonaparte’s favored organ of government because it was agreeable to his demands. For example, it promulgated the decrees that established first the Consulate for Life and then the Empire.
  • SOU(S)
    An old regime copper coin. It was divided into twelve deniers and twenty sous made a livre. See denier.
    Under the constitution of 1791, Louis XVI could refuse to sign a decree passed by the legislature. If the measure passed the two consecutive subsequent legislatures, it would automatically become a law. The issue of what kind of veto power the King would have in the constitution—absolute or suspensive—had been divisive, but the King’s use of the veto in defense of refractory clergy and émigrés helped undermine his popular support and greatly facilitated the fall of the monarchy on 10 August 1792.
    A fraction of the harvest paid (before all other taxes) to the Roman Catholic Church for the maintenance of the clergy, poor relief, and to support services. In existence for almost a millennium, the weight of tithe varied, but generally it was between one-fifteenth and one-tenth. Often paid to higher and nonresident clergy, the tithe was an important subject of the cahiers de doléances, which often called for its revision or abolition.
    Signed 27 October 1797, between France and Austria after Napoleon Bonaparte’s Italian campaign. Following a truce agreed on in March and a preliminary agreement with the Habsburgs signed at Leoben, this treaty went against the Directory’s wishes for gains in Belgium and along the Rhine in exchange for Italy. Leoben gave Belgium to France and recognized the republican governments set up by France in Italy, giving compensation to Austria at Venice’s expense. Bonaparte seized Venice to make the treaty possible. The Directory accepted the treaty to avoid giving a fresh impetus to royalism, which played on French war-weariness. This treaty was little more than an armed truce, though, since Austria was only awaiting a more favorable moment to resume its war against France.
    Was set up by the Constitution of the Year VIII (1800) to debate legislation proposed by other institutions, notably the Council of State and the Legislative Body that proposed bills. Members of the Legislative Body and Tribunate were chosen by the Senate. The site of a small liberal opposition to Bonaparte, the Tribunate unsuccessfully fought some of his innovations. As a result, the Tribunate was purged of its more vocal members in 1802 and then abolished in 1804.
    In October 1789 the French royal family took up residence at this palace with extensive gardens located in central Paris, next to the Louvre. Despite one escape attempt, they remained there as virtual hostages until 10 August 1792, when the Paris masses stormed the palace and overthrew the monarchy. The remaining defenders were massacred.
    A papal proclamation of 1713 solicited by Louis XIV, which condemned many of the central ideas of the Jansenists. It touched off a serious conflict between the judges of the parlements who resented the interference of the pope, preferring to assert “Gallican liberties,” meaning that the French church did not have to submit to papal requirements. By adopting the Jansenist cause, the judges set the stage for a century-long conflict with the royal and ecclesiastical hierarchy.
    Ownership and heritability of an office. Sold by the state to raise money, these offices, mostly in the judicial apparatus and the administration, were retained in exchange for an annual tax of one-sixtieth of the value (the Paulette). These offices provided access to power and opportunities for profit. The more important offices, and thus the most expensive, also conferred personal noble status on the holder that became hereditary, generally after three generations. Through venality of office many bourgeoisie could hope for eventual noble status, which provided an important avenue of social mobility; yet as a governmental system it was inefficient because it made it very difficult to administer government policy consistently. Venal officeholders, treating their posts as property, could better resist general directives.



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