Analysis of the 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
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
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 government.
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 constitution.
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 countryside.
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.
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Connelly, Owen. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 14. Toronto: World
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Woloch, Isser. The World Book Encyclopedia, volume 7. Toronto: World
Book Inc., 1989. "French Revolution."
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Software. Grolier, 1992. PC, CD-ROM. "French Revolution"