The period 17891799 that saw the end of the monarchy
in France. The revolution began as an attempt to create a constitutional monarchy, where the powers of the king would be limited by a parliament
. By late 1792, however, demands for long-overdue reforms resulted in the proclamation of the First Republic and the execution of King Louis XVI
in January 1973. The violence of the revolution, attacks by other nations, and bitter factional struggles, riots, and counter-revolutionary uprisings across France severely weakened the republic. This helped bring the extremists to power, and the bloody Reign of Terror
followed. French armies then succeeded in holding off their foreign enemies and one of the generals, Napoleon
Bonaparte, seized power in 1799.
The States General
In the decades before the French Revolution, France was involved in the Seven Years' War
(17561763) and the American Revolution
(17751783), also known as the War of American Independence. The cost of these wars brought about a financial crisis. The French government did not have the money to pay for the wars, so borrowed large amounts of money at high rates of interest to finance them. By 1787 it was clear that the French monarchy and government was bankrupt, and King Louis XVI and his government were forced to seek new solutions to their problems.
In 1788 King Louis XVI decided to summon the States General
(three estates of clergy (first), nobles (second), and commons (third)) in order to raise taxes. It was the first time that the States General had been called since 1614, indicating major weakness in the monarchy. By calling the States General, King Louis XVI was admitting that the monarchy was in a desperate position, leaving him at the mercy of his enemies in France.
The States General met in May 1789. During the meeting, the representatives of the third estate
(all the people of France who were neither nobles nor Catholic priests) insisted that the three estates should be merged into a single national assembly. The demand was designed to force the king to recognize the rights of the French nation and people. Priests from the first estate soon joined the deputies of the third estate, along with many liberal-minded nobles from the second estate. When Louis XVI tried to lock the doors of the National Assembly hall, the deputies met in a nearby tennis court, and issued the Tennis Court Oath. In this statement they swore that they would never stop meeting until Louis XVI recognized their rights.
Louis was forced to back down and accept the existence of the National Assembly. At the same time, however, large numbers of soldiers were gathering on the hills surrounding Paris. Their intentions were unclear, but the people of Paris were unlikely to believe that their king was entirely peaceful towards them. The combination of the attempt to stop the creation of a national assembly and the presence of troops around Paris created a highly tense atmosphere in Paris by the second week of July 1789.
The National Assembly
Louis's actions led to the storming of the Bastille
prison by the Paris mob on 14 July 1789. On the same day the price of bread in Paris had reached its highest ever level. The Bastille was the symbol of the repressive power of the monarchy. It was also believed to hold ammunition that would allow the Parisians to defend themselves against the king's soldiers. The storming of the Bastille was followed by the formation of a revolutionary city government in Paris, known as the Paris Commune
, and a number of peasant uprisings outside Paris.
In August the National Assembly introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which contained the ideas of liberty and equality; the right to own property; and the right of all citizens to resist oppressive treatment. The king refused to agree to the Declaration, however, and in October there were more uprisings in Paris. In 1791 the royal family attempted to flee the country in the flight of Varennes, but Louis XVI was captured and was later forced to accept a new constitution.
The constitution of 1791
The new constitution established a constitutional monarchy. It reduced Louis's powers and gave authority over lawmaking and financial matters to the National Assembly. Power had passed from the hands of the monarchy to the representatives of the French people. Under the constitution, France was reorganized into 83 départements
. This was for the purposes of efficiency and to mark a break with the past. The constitution also reformed the court system by abolishing the old parlements
which had been dominated by the nobility. It also gave government control over the Roman Catholic
Church by requiring both judges and priests to be elected to office, as well as extending religious tolerance to Protestants and Jews. The National Assembly also took ownership of much of the Catholic Church's vast lands and property, which were sold off in order to pay off the nation's debts.
War with Austria and Prussia
During this period some of the aristocracy moved abroad, and tried to encourage other nations to fight against the revolutionary government. These aristocrats were known as émigrés, and many settled in Prussian (German) towns in the Rhineland
. They used their fortunes to raise armies and produce propaganda pamphlets against the revolution. They wanted to get the Prussians and Austrians to launch a war to restore Louis XVI and the monarchy to its pre-1789 position in France. The émigrés were particularly confident of getting the Austrians to attack the revolution, as the Austrian emperor, Joseph II, was the brother of Marie Antoinette
, the French queen.
The revolution's supporters outside France were also suffering increased attack, and France eventually went to war with Austria and Prussia (who supported Louis XVI) on 20 April 1792. The Austrian and Prussian armies invaded France, and for a time the war threatened to destroy the revolution. The armies of the revolution lost every battle they fought with the Austrians and Prussians, and it seemed inevitable that Paris and the revolution would soon fall. By 2 September 1792 the Austrians had captured the fortress at Verdun
and the road to Paris was open to them.
However, on 10 August the Paris mob had stormed the Tuileries Palace, where Louis XVI had been living, and had imprisoned the king and his family. The constitutional monarchy established by the 1791 constitution was brought to an end. On 20 September 1792 the French won a crucial victory at the Battle of Valmy
and effectively saved the revolution. A National Convention had been formed by election and, on 21 September, the Convention abolished the monarchy and declared France a republic
. Louis XVI was put on trial, found guilty of treason
, and executed at the guillotine on 21 January 1793.
The Reign of Terror
In the period after Louis XVI's death, tensions within the National Convention resulted in a power struggle between the moderate Girondins
and the more radical Jacobins
, led by Maximilien Robespierre
, Georges Jaques Danton
, and Jean Paul Marat
. The Jacobins arrested the Girondin leaders in June 1793, and control of the country was passed to the infamous Committee of Public Safety, which was headed by Robespierre, Lazare Carnot
, and Bertrand Barère. The committee announced a policy of terror against all those seen as rebels or opponents of the revolution, supporters of the king, and Girondin sympathizers. During the Reign of Terror
, an estimated 18,000 citizens were sent to the guillotine (though figures vary), and many more died in prison without being formally brought to trial. One of the more famous victims of the Terror was Marie Antoinette, the widow of Louis XVI.
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