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French Revolution


"Revolutions evolve in definite phases. At first they are
moderate in scope, then they become radical to excess and
finally they are brought to abrupt conclusions by the
emergence of a strong man to restore order." Discuss this
statement with specific references to the French
The French Revolution brought about great changes in the
society and government of France. The revolution, which
lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had far-reaching effects on
the rest of Europe. "It introduced democratic ideals to
France but did not make the nation a democracy. However, it
ended supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the
middle class." (Durant, 12) After the revolution began, no
European kings, nobles, or other members of the aristocracy
could take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of
liberty and equality.
The revolution began with a government financial crisis but
quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. In
one of the early events, a crowd in Paris captured the
Bastille, a royal fortress and hated symbol of oppression.
A series of elected legislatures then took control of the
government. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette,
were executed. Thousands of others met the same fate in a
period known as the Reign of Terror. The revolution ended
when Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the
At the beginning of the revolution, events seemed minor and
proceeded in a logical fashion. One of the reasons the
revolution originated was the discontent among the lower
and middle classes in France. By law, society was divided
in to three groups called estates. The first estate was
made of up clergy, nobles comprised the second and the rest
of the citizens, the third estate.
The third estate resented certain advantages of the first
two estates. The clergy and nobles did not have to pay most
taxes. The third estate, especially the peasants, had to
provide almost all the country's tax revenue. Many members
of the middle class were also worried by their social
status. They were among the most important people in French
society but were not recognized as such because they
belonged to the third estate.
"Financial crisis developed because the nation had gone
deeply into debt to finance the Seven Years War (1756-1763)
and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783)." (Durant, 22) The
Parliament of Paris insisted that King Louis XVI could
borrow more money or raise taxes only by calling a meeting
of the States-General. The States-General was made up of
representatives of the three estates, and had last met in
1614. Unwillingly, the king called the meeting.
The States-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles.
The first two estates wanted each estate to take up matters
and vote on them separately by estate. The third estate had
has many representatives as the other two combined. It
insisted that all the estates be merged into one national
assembly and that each representative had one vote. The
third estate also wanted the States-General to write a
The king and the first two estates refused the demands of
the third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the
third estate declared themselves the National Assembly of
France. Louis the XVI them allowed the three estates to
join together as the National Assembly. But he began to
gather troops around Paris to break up the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the masses of France also took action. On July
14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians rushed to the Bastille.
They believed they would find arms and ammunition there for
use in defending themselves against the king's army. The
people captured the Bastille and began to tear it down.
Massive peasant uprisings were also occurring in the
The king's removal led to a new stage in the revolution.
The first stage had been a liberal middle-class reform
movement based on a constitutional monarchy. The second
stage was organized around principles of democracy. The
National Convention opened on September 21, 1792, and
declared France a republic.
"Louis XVI was placed on trial for betraying the country.
The National Convention found him guilty of treason , and a
slim majority voted for the death-penalty. The king was
beheaded on the guillotine on January 21, 1793. The
revolution gradually grew more radical-that is more open to
extreme and violent change. Radical leaders came into
prominence. In the Convention, they were known as the
mountain because they sat on the high benches at the rear
of the hall during meetings. Leaders of the Mountain were
Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques Danton, and Jean
Paul Marat. The Mountain dominated a powerful political
club called the Jacobin Club.
"Growing disputes between the Mountain and the Gironde led
to a struggle for power, and the Mountain won. In June
1793, the Convention arrested the leading Girondists. In
turn, the Girondists' supporters rebelled against the
Convention. One of these supporters assassinated Marat in
July 1793." (Woloch, 526)
This was the most horrific period of the revolution. The
Convention's leaders included Robespierre, Lazare Carnot,
and Bertrand Barere. The Convention declared a policy of
terror against rebels, supporters of the king, and anyone
else who publicly disagreed with official policy. "In time,
hundreds of thousands of suspects filled the nation's
jails. Courts handed down about 18,000 death sentences in
what was called the Reign of Terror. Paris became
accustomed to the rattle of two-wheeled carts called
tumbrels as they carried people to the guillotine."
(Woloch, 526)
In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among
themselves. Robespierre succeeded in having Danton and
other former leaders executed. Many people in France wanted
to end the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and
the democratic revolution. Robespierre's enemies in the
Convention finally attacked him as a tyrant on July 29,
1794. He was executed the next day. The Reign of Terror
ended with Robespierre's death.
"The Convention, which had adopted a democratic
constitution in 1793, replaced that document with a new one
in 1795. The government formed under this new constitution
was called the Directory. France was still a republic, but
once again only citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes
could vote." (Woloch, 527)
The Directory began meeting in October 1795. In October
1799, a number of political leaders plotted to overthrow
the Directory. They needed military support and turned to
Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general who had become a hero
during a military campaign in Italy in 1796 and 1797.
Bonaparte seized control of the government on November 9,
1799, ending the revolution. Napoleon would restore order
to the French people with such great achievements as his
Code Napoleon.
Works Cited
1. Durant, Will and Ariel. The Story of Civilization XI:
The Age of Napoleon. 

New York: Simon and Schuster, 1975.
 1. Connelly, Owen. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume
Toronto: World Book Inc., 1989. "Napoleon I."
 1. Woloch, Isser. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 7. 
Toronto: World Book Inc., 1989. "French Revolution."
4. The Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia, Vers.
1.5. Computer Software. Grolier, 1992. PC, CD-ROM.
"French Revolution"



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