French Revolution, cataclysmic political and social upheaval, extending from 1789 to 1799. The revolution resulted, among other things, in the overthrow of the monarchy in France and in the establishment of the First Republic. It was generated by a vast complex of causes and produced an equally vast complex of consequences.
For more than a century before the accession of King Louis XVI in 1774, the French government experienced periodic economic crises resulting from wars, royal mismanagement, and increased indebtedness. Attempts at reform accomplished little because of opposition from reactionary members of the nobility and clergy. As the financial crisis worsened under the rule of Louis, popular demand compelled him to authorize national elections in 1788 for the Estates-General (an assembly representing clergy, nobility, and commoners that had last met in 1614).
The Estates-General convened at Versailles in May 1789. The nobility and clergy immediately challenged the procedure for voting proposed by the commoners, or third estate. After a six-week deadlock, the third estate proclaimed itself a National Assembly with sole power to legislate taxation. The assembly then announced its intentions to draft a constitution. Some representatives of the nobility and clergy joined forces with the assembly, which soon renamed itself the National Constituent Assembly.
When Louis, reacting to pressure from the queen and others, concentrated loyal regiments in Paris and Versailles, the people of Paris reacted with open insurrection, storming the Bastille prison on July 14. The Parisian middle class, or bourgeoisie, fearful that the lower classes would seize power, hastily established a local provisional government and organized a people’s militia, a pattern soon repeated throughout the nation. In October, as the Constituent Assembly proceeded to draft a constitution, a large body of Parisians marched on Versailles. Louis and his family then moved to Paris, where the court and the assembly became increasingly subject to pressures from the citizens of Paris.
The first draft of the constitution received the king’s approval in July 1790. By the terms of the document, the provinces were reorganized, hereditary titles were outlawed, trial by jury was ordained, and restrictions were placed on the power of the Roman Catholic church. Property qualifications for the vote, however, confined the electorate to the middle and upper classes. During the 15-month interval before the completion of the final draft, a trend toward radicalism developed among the disfranchised section of the population. This process accelerated in June 1791, when the royal family was apprehended while attempting to flee France.
The revolutionaries of Paris demanded that the king be deposed, but moderates in the Constituent Assembly reinstated the king, hoping to stem radicalism and prevent foreign intervention. The Constituent Assembly was dissolved, and the new Legislative Assembly, which met in October, was divided into three groups: a majority without well-defined political opinions; the supporters of a constitutional monarchy; and a Republican faction, composed mainly of Girondins, who advocated a federal republic, and Montagnards, consisting of Jacobins and Cordeliers, who favored establishment of a highly centralized republic. The Girondins soon emerged as the most powerful party.
In April 1792 the Legislative Assembly declared war on the Austrian part of the Holy Roman Empire. Austrian armies then invaded France. When Sardinia and Prussia joined the war in July, the assembly declared a national emergency. In August insurgents stormed the royal residence at the Tuileries. Louis and his family took refuge with the assembly, which promptly placed him in confinement. Simultaneously, Montagnards under the leadership of Georges Jacques Danton took control of the Paris government. They swiftly achieved control of the Legislative Assembly and called for the creation of a new constitutional convention.
In September a French army checked the Prussian advance at Valmy. Thereafter, French armies assumed the offensive, successfully capturing enemy territory. The newly elected National Convention abolished the monarchy and, in the first major test of strength, a majority approved the Montagnard proposal that Louis be brought to trial for treason. The convention found the monarch guilty and sent Louis to the guillotine in January 1793.
After the king’s execution, the Girondins began to lose influence. Military reverses occurred after war was declared against Great Britain, the United Netherlands, and Spain. In March the convention voted to conscript 300,000 men, and peasants in the Vend e region rebelled. Civil war spread to neighboring areas, and a military loss to the Austrians resulted in the defection of the leader of the French army.
In April the convention established the Committee of Public Safety as the executive office of the republic. After a Parisian mob forced the arrest of many Girondin delegates, the radical faction assumed control of the revolution. Leadership of the Committee of Public Safety passed to Jacobin leader Maximilien Robespierre, who instituted extreme policies to crush counterrevolutionary activity. From April 1793 to July 1794, the committee presided over an extremely violent period that became known as the Reign of Terror.
During this time, foreign powers resumed the offensive on all fronts. Under a new conscription decree, about 750,000 French soldiers were organized, equipped, and rushed to the fronts. The committee also struck violently at internal opposition. Thousands were sent to the guillotine. The tide of battle against the allied coalition turned in favor of France, and by the end of the year, the invaders had been driven back and the Committee of Public Safety had crushed insurrections of Royalists and Girondins. Robespierre then moved against Danton, who was beheaded along with his principal colleagues in April 1794. This move alienated large numbers of Robespierre’s supporters, many of whom now feared for their own lives. In July Robespierre and some of his followers were seized and beheaded by a group called the Thermidoreans. The French armies, undamaged by these events on the home front, inflicted a series of reversals on their enemies that resulted in the disintegration of the anti-French coalition, leaving Great Britain, Sardinia, and Austria as the sole remaining contenders.
In November 1795 a new constitution took effect, placing executive authority in a five-member Directory. Over the next few years the body was plagued by constant rivalries for power, successive coups d’etat, and ineffectual administration. In an attempt to divert attention from financial and political problems, the Directory also launched the Napoleonic Wars. A 1799 coup d’ tat toppled the Directory and General Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I) assumed dictatorial powers, ending the period of the French Revolution.
The French Revolution abolished absolute monarchy, feudal privileges, and serfdom; dissolved the large estates; and established equal liability to taxation. The revolution also began reforms in the fields of education, law, and the separation of church and state. The more intangible results of the revolution were embodied in its ideals, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” which became the platform of liberal, democratic reforms in France and Europe in the 19th century.