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For centuries, the ancien régime reigned supreme in France. The all-powerful king stood at the top of the hierarchy, with the clergy and nobility below him, and below them the peasants, who endured poverty and starvation while those above them wallowed in privilege.
But in 1789, it was all swept away in a tidal wave of riots and executions. The French Revolution would change Europe forever.
Here is a rundown of events leading to the uprising and the chaos that followed it.
Key events of the French Revolution
The Moderate Phase (1789 – 1792)
January 24, 1789 — King Louis XVI summons the Estates General
June 17, 1789 — The National Assembly is formed
June 20, 1789 — The "Tennis Court Oath"
July 14, 1789 — The storming of the Bastille
August 4, 1789 — Abolition of feudal rights
August 26, 1789 — Declaration of the Rights of Man
June 19, 1790 — National Assembly abolishes the nobility
July 12, 1790 — National Assembly passes Civil Constitution of the Clergy, making the clergy servants of the state
September 3, 1791 — New constitution ratified
August 10, 1792 — Parisians storm Tuileries palace, ending the reign of King Louis XVI
September 2 — September 6 1792 — September Massacres
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The Radical Phase (1792 – 1794)
September 21, 1792 — French Republic proclaimed
January 21, 1793 — King Louis XVI is executed
5 September 1793 — 27 July 1794 — Maximilien Robespierre initiates the Reign of Terror; mass executions of nobility and "enemies of the revolution".
28 July 1794 — Robespierre is guillotined; the final victim of the Reign of Terror that he himself presided over
The Conservative Phase (1795 – 1799)
November 1795 — The Directory (Directoire) is formed to govern France
November 9, 1799 — Napolean leads a military coup that overthrows the Directory
The First Step: The National Assembly is Formed (June 17, 1789)
King Louis XVI initially summoned the Estates General — a council of nobility, clergy and commoners — to address the financial crisis resulting from a series of bad harvests, severe winters, and significant expenditure (including the cost of participating in the American Revolution).
It was the first time such a council had assembled since 1614. However, things had changed a lot since then. The Middle Class (bourgeoisie) had begun to question why the rights of the First Estate (clergy) and Second Estate (nobility) should supersede those of the Third Estate (commoners, including townsfolk and peasants).
The Third Estate vastly outnumbered the clergy and nobility, yet their votes could be vetoed by the other two bodies. They demanded that votes be counted by head rather than rank. This was refused.
As a result, the Third Estate broke off to form its own council; the National Assembly.
The "Tennis Court Oath"
The hall where the National Assembly met was shut down on Louis XVI's orders, so the delegates gathered on the tennis court instead. On June 20 1789, they swore the "Tennis Court Oath", vowing not to disassemble until constitutional reform had been achieved.
This was a landmark moment in the history of France. It was the first time the Third Estate had openly challenged the king.
After being denied use of the tennis court, the National Assembly gathered in the Church of Saint Louis.
Origin of the Political Terms "Left-wing" and "Right-wing"
Some members of the National Assembly wanted to keep the monarchy but limit its power, while others wanted to abolish it outright. The former sat to the right of the president of the assembly, while the latter sat to the left.
Thus "left-wing" became a catch-all term for progressives and radicals while "right-wing" refers to those who want to preserve traditions and age-old institutions.
The Storming of the Bastille (July 14, 1789)
In the beginning, King Louis XVI grudgingly went along with the demands of the Third Estate's representatives and agreed to incorporate the Estates-General into the National Assembly. But he constantly sought ways to sabotage the new body.
Tensions mounted, and rumours arose that the king was planning to use the army to crush the National Assembly. Angry crowds gathered in Paris and stormed the Bastille to obtain weapons. This sparked riots and uprisings across France. The French Revolution had begun in earnest.
Nobles began to flee France in droves, fearing what came next. This was known as "The Great Fear" (la Grande peur).
The End of the Ancient Regime (August 1789 – January 1793)
In the wake of this uproar, the National Assembly essentially became the new government of France.
Caught up in the wave of revolutionary fervour, they abolished feudalism via a written decree that Georges Lefebvre later called the “death certificate of the old order.” The nobility was stripped of their land ownership rights, and the tithe (a tax paid to the church) was eliminated.
This was followed by the Declaration of the Rights of Man on August 26. It was similar to the American Declaration of Independence in that it was a statement of principles rather than a legal document. It stated that the rights of man were held to be universal, becoming the basis for a nation of free individuals protected equally by the law.
The National Assembly then set to work drafting France's first constitution.
Abolishing the First Estate
Now began the dismantling of the Ancien Régime. First to go were the privileges of the clergy. The property of the church was confiscated and put "at the disposal of the nation".
Then came the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (Civile Du Clergé), passed on July 12, 1790. It made the clergy servants of the state; no longer an independent body.
Abolishing the Second Estate
Meanwhile, the Second Estate was also receiving its comeuppance. On 19 June 1790, hereditary nobility was abolished. Titles such as duke, count and knight were made redundant.
The new constitution, grudgingly signed by King Louis XVI on September 3, 1791, kept the king as head of state but placed true power in the hands of a legislative assembly.
This attempt at a constitutional monarchy would fail within a year.
Abolishing the Monarchy
Revolutionary France was surrounded by enemies. The nobles of foreign states felt threatened by the defeat of nobility in France. The commanding general of the Austro–Prussian Army threatened to destroy Paris if any harm came to King Louis XVI.
That only enflamed the Parisian mobs, who launched an attack on Tuileries Palace. The king was imprisoned, and on September 21, 1792, France was declared a Republic.
Yet another surge of paranoia engulfed France. As the Austrian and Prussian armies closed in, revolutionaries believed that dissidents held in French prisons were going to rise up and join the invading armies.
Mobs stormed prisons and slaughtered those within. Around 1,200 people were killed, 220 of them being priests who had been arrested for protesting the Civil Constitution of the Clergy.
The Reign of Terror (September 1793 – July 1794)
The September Massacres were but a glimpse of what was to come.
The revolutionary government, under siege by foreign powers and fearing the enemies within, declared that terror was now the order of the day.
King Louis XVI was executed on January 21 1793. His wife, Marie Antoinette, followed him on October 16. The guillotines were just being warmed up.
Over the next couple of years, France would devolve into tyranny and bloodlust. Thousands of supposed "enemies of the revolution" were dragged to the guillotines and beheaded in front of cheering crowds.
Around 17,000 people were executed, and 10,000 died in prison without trial.
The Rise and Fall of Robespierre
At the centre of the Reign of Terror was Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer and politician who had grown influential thanks to a series of passionate speeches made before the National Assembly.
If you had met Robespierre earlier in his career, you would never have thought him capable of the horror he would inflict. He was a compassionate man who advocated for the abolition of slavery and was nicknamed "the incorruptible" due to his strong moral fibre. It was he who coined the famous motto "Liberté, égalité, fraternité".
But as the Prussian and Austrian armies closed in, Robespierre underwent a dramatic transformation. He called for all citizens of France to rise up in defence against enemies both without and within. His powerful speeches, which had once served the cause of liberty, now elicited riots and massacres.
He grew increasingly dictatorial and made many enemies during the Reign of Terror. They were afraid to oppose him whilst he had the people on his side, but that changed when the wars ended and national fervour died down.
The peasants realised their situation was as dire as it had been before the revolution, and Robespierre, who had grown poor in health, lost his influence over them. This was the opportunity his enemies had been waiting for. Robespierre was arrested and executed via the same guillotines to which had sent so many others.
The Aftermath of the French Revolution
With the Reign of Terror over, revolutionaries attempted to restore peace and stability. Yet another constitution was drafted, this one placing the country under the governance of the Directory (Directoire), which consisted of a bi-cameral parliament with an upper house of 250 members and a lower house of 500.
Unfortunately, the Directory was rife with corruption and lasted just a few years before a popular general named Napolean seized power. The French Revolution had only succeeded in replacing the hereditary monarchy with a military dictatorship.
General information. Purdue University.
History Channel. 2009, November 9.
Establishment of the National Assembly. Lumen Learning.
Abolition of Nobility. Liberté, égalité, fraternité: Exploring the French Revolution.