The French Revolution Essay

The Great French Revolution is the largest social revolution of the New time. It is a period in history of France from 1789 to 1799, during which a radical turn happened in the country affecting all the spheres of life. In particular a monarchy was abolished and a republic was proclaimed.

All in all French revolution is a central event in the cultural and political life of Western Europe at the end of XVIII and the beginning of the XIX century that affected the subsequent development of the European history.

Historical background: France late 18th century

  The financial pre-conditions of revolution were connected with the development of the capitalist mode in the so-called the old regime, its motive forces were caused to living by contradictions, accompanying this process. A direct reason of revolution was a bankruptcy of the state that had no possibility to pay off huge debts without the rejection of the system with archaic privileges, based on the exalted station, family connections and gentility. The unsuccessful attempts of the royal power to reform this system aggravated dissatisfaction of noblemen by falling down of their influence and encroachment upon their native privileges.

Politically, despite the great power and authority of the monarch, there were also three distinguishable forces which later comprised the Estates General. To put it more precisely there were three estates that had political influence.

The first estate constituted of clergy representing Catholic Church which was traditionally loyal to the monarchy. The second estate was formed by nobility which traditionally was in a privileged position, while the third consisted of the middle class and peasants.

           Forming the National Assembly and meeting of the                            Estates General

In order to solve the existing problems France needed not only socio-economic but also political changes for this purpose the King Louis XVI was forced to make a convocation of the General states on the 5-th of 1789 that did not have gathered since 1614[i]. Basically, it constituted of the three estates mentioned above. Remarkably each estate had one vote that theoretically made them equal. At the same time, the role of the third estate was still underestimated and some of the representatives of clergy like Abbe Sieyes as well as those of nobility criticized the power and rights the third estate was given. In response their opponents underlined the injustice and discrimination of the third estate which actually should be given much more power than both clergy and nobility since it was representing the people which founded the state and consequently, it was even possible to estimate that this estate is the state itself.[ii] The increasing role of the third estate culd not remain unnoticed and Abe Sieyes pointed out in his famous pamphlet “What is the Third Estate” in January 1789: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been up to now in the political order? Nothing. What does it demand? To become something herein.”[iii]

In the situation of the economic crisis, political changes were needed and the third estate had started to play the dominant role, refusing to discuss details of the Estates General proposed by the King and other two estates, on the 17-th of June the representatives of the third estate proclaimed themselves the National assembly, allowing the other two estates to join them. The king naturally ordered the closure of the Salle des Etats where the Assembly met. In response the deputies proceeded in a tennis court situated nearby and swore the Tennis Court Oath, June 20, 1789, refusing to separate until the constitution would be given to France. On the 23-rd of Junes on proposal of Mirabo renounced to submit a royal decree about their dismissal[iv]. On the 9-th of July the Assembly named itself Constituent, proclaiming their purpose of making new constitutional bases of the new political order.

The urban poor and peasantry entering the revolution

The threat of dispersal of the Constituent assembly caused a revolt in Paris. In this respect, it is important to underline that at this point the urban poor was actively involved in the further events leading to the revolution. On the 14-th of July 1789 a fortress-prison Bastille, a symbol of absolutism was assaulted. This day is considered to be a date of the beginning of revolution.

After taking of the Bastille the wave of “municipal revolutions” took place during which the new elected bodies of local government were created all over the country[v]. The revolution army (national guard) was formed and Laffayet became the head of it. Agitations blazed up also in the country: peasants burned locks, destroyed a lot of documents of feudal right and liege archives. On the nightly meeting on the 4-th of Augusts a constituent assembly declared “complete elimination of feudal order” and abolition of some most odious liege rights. Other duties of peasants were subjected to their redemption. To a significant extent, it was the result of the peasants struggle that was later defined as the ”˜Great Fear’ of Summer 1789.

Principles of new civil society were fastened in “The Declaration of human and citizen rights” (on August, 26 1789), which was actually significantly influenced by the US Declaration of Independence (August 26, 1789) that served as a model.

Obviously, the new order had been establishing but royalists opposed to this process which they attempted to block.

In the result of this opposition the people of Paris, basically women, marched on Versailles on 5 October 1789 that was later called the march of the women. In this respect, it is worthy to note that many specialists[vi] underline the great role of women in the French Revolution. For instance, Perry Pedden and Von Laue emphasize that the participation of women in the French revolution was very significant and they played an important role due to the activity of such women as Christine de Pisan whose works had been read during that period for the sole reason that she was a woman writer, which was almost an unheard occupation for women of that time. [vii]In the result of several incidents and scuffles the King and royal family were forced to return back to Paris.

“Declaration” served as a preamble to the text of constitution, making of which proceeded by September 1791.

Constitutional debates in the Assembly were accompanied with the acceptance of decrees, regulating the major sides of life in France. The new territorial-administrative division of the country, creating modern departments, was ratified. The electiveness of sidesmen, obligatory oath of priests of allegiance of constitution deprived the catholic church of independent political role. Undertaken for satisfaction of national debt and coverage of current expenses so-called national property (confiscated church and emigrant lands and also domains of the crown) resulted in the redistribution of property. On the first stage of revolution the power was in the hands of that part of the nobility and bourgeoisie, which had financial claims against royal power and aimed to satisfy them by all means. At that time the political managing a country was carried out by the group or so to say “patriotic society” called Jacobinic club.

Through the ramified network of branches in province it influenced greatly the politicization of the greater part of population. An unprecedented value was purchased by journalism: “Friend of people” by Marat, “Dad Duchene” by  Eber, “French patriot” by Brisso, “Ferrous mouths” of N. Bonville, the “Rural sheets” by Cherutty and other newspapers acquainted readers with the difficult palette of political fight.

On June, 21 1791 the King, having the status of the head of the state, but being in Paris actually on the rights of the hostage, together with his family tried to escape secretly to Austrian Netherlands, but was identified and detained in the township of Varenn[viii]. This crisis compromised the Constitutional monarchy. On the 17-th of July on the Champ-de-Mars mass manifestation, requiring renunciation of Louis XVI, was shot up in Paris. Trying to rescue a monarchy the Assembly allowed the king to sign the finally accepted constitution and, exhausting his plenary powers, divided. That crisis served to be a signal to a formation of coalition of European powers against revolutionary France.

From the beginning of 1792 Girondists began the discussion of measures, preparing disestablishment. On June, 18 and August, 25 the General court abolished buying feudal rights back, except for those cases, when “primary” documents were produced, determining the transmission of lands by certain duties. On the 20-th of April 1792 by initiative of Girondists France declared war of Austria, on the side of which Prussia came forward soon[ix].

Inevitable for every revolution devastation, inflation, growth of costlines caused more protests of rural and city population. The failures of the first months of war were generated by suspecting of treason. On June, 20 1792 the crowd of Parisian sans-culottes burst into the palace, but did not obtain from king the approval on decrees about deportation of the unsworn priests and about creation of military camp in a neighborhood of Paris for the rescue of the capital from Austrian and Prussian armies.

In July the General court was declared that the country was in great danger. The stream of volunteers gushed in a revolutionary army. On the 10-th of August Parisian sections, territorial associations, leaning on the support of province, led a revolt. The overthrow of monarchy became the top of political success of Girondists. On September, 21 1792 a legislature passed to Convention in which Montanjars vied with Girondists under the head of Robespierre.

Beginning at once after the revolt of August, 10 1792 appearance of Prussian-Austrian troops caused the new national getting up, simultaneously provoking next ears about a plot in to the rear. In this respect, it is possible to trace a characteristic typical for many national movements. For instance, American War for Independence was also targeted on the elimination of British authority and the struggle against the oversea oppressors really united the nation.

The mass beatings of prisoners in Parisian prisons at the beginning of September 1792 became the precursor of coming terror. On September, 20 near Valmi (to the west from Verdun) the French revolutionary army under the command of generals of Kellermann and Dumurje won a first victory. On November, 6 at Dumurje broke up Austrians and occupied Belgium. However war required new forces. A call-up of 300 thousands a man in February 1793 discontented in a number of departments and served as a subject for a beginning of Vandei, sanguinary peasant war in the West of France, and also to the revolts in southeast, in Tulone and Marseilles.

Economic crisis, mass disturbances, overgrowing revolt of peasants of Vandei, defeat near Neervinden (on March, 18 1793) related with Girondists of Dumurje and his passing to the side of enemy predetermined falling of this party and death of its leaders. On June, 2 1793 the transition of power to montanjars as a result of the revolt of Parisians on the 31-st of May  meant the political victory of new bourgeoisie of capital, arisen up in the years of revolution due to the purchase-sale of national property and inflations above the ancient regime and capital, folded mainly to 1789[x].

Before coming to power of montanjars obtained execution of the king: on the 21-st of January 1793 Louis XVI was guillotined in Paris on the square of Revolution, now Square of Consent[xi]. On the agrarian legislation of Jacobeans (June-July 1793) communal and emigrant earths were passed to the peasants for a devision; all of feudal rights and privileges was destroyed fully without every redemption. In September 1793 a government set a universal maximum high bound of prices on the products of consumption and wages for workers. It was expected for the poor; however very advantageous it was profitable for some large merchants, who became rich because of wholesale deliveries and beggared their competitors of shallow shopkeepers.

Jacobins continued treading on a catholic church and entered a republican calendar. A constitution, declaring universal the right to vote, was accepted in 1793, however the realization of this principle was set aside to the best times from critical position of republic[xii]. Jacobinic dictatorship, successfully utilizing initiative of social grounds, showed the complete denial of liberal principles. Industrial production and agriculture, finances and trade, public festivals and private life of citizens were exposed to strict regulation. However much it halted the further deepening of economic and social crisis. In September 1793 the Convention was “put terror on an order-paper”[xiii].

Higher organ of executive power of Jacobinic dictatorship, the Committee of public rescue sent the representatives to all of departments, providing with their extraordinary plenary powers. Beginning with those, who hoped to revive the ancient regime or simply reminded about him, jacobinic terror did not spare such famous revolutionaries, as Danton or Demulen. The concentration of power in the hands of Robespierre was accompanied with a complete isolation, caused by mass executions. The victory of general Jordon above Austrians on the 26-th of June 1794 at Fleryuse (Belgium) gave the guarantees of inviolability of new property, the tasks of Jacobenean dictatorship were exhausted and a necessity was fallen off. Revolution of July (9 termidora), 27-28 1794 sent Robespierre and his nearest associates under the knife of guillotine[xiv].

In September 1794 first in history of France a decree about disestablishment was accepted. Confiscations and sales of emigrant property were not halted. In summer 1795 the republican army of general Gosh raided forces of rebels of shuanov and royalists, landings from the English ships on the peninsula of Kiberon. In October (13, 5 1795 republican troops of Napoleon Bonaparte were crushed down royalist revolt in Paris. However in the policy of changing power groups all a greater scope was acquired by a fight against folk masses. Folk revolts were low-spirited in Paris of April, 1 and May, 20-23. Large-scale external aggression of Napoleon’s wars in Italy, Egypt etc. protected France from a threat restoration of the ancient regime, and from the new getting up of revolutionary motion.

Revolution was completed on November, 9 1799 with the establishment of “hard power” of dictatorship of Napoleon.


Thus, it is possible to conclude that the French Revolution produced a dramatic impact on the historical development of France and the whole world. Probably first time in the history, people really rebelled against oppression and started active struggle against the privileged classes. At this point the class consciousness of deprived classes of French society played the role of the moving force of their struggle for their rights. At the same time, the French Revolution served a symbol of struggle for democratic changes and inspired many revolutionists to use its experience in their activities. Finally, it was a great historical lesson for the whole world which taught people to struggle for their future and this struggle opened new opportunities for millions of people worldwide and evoked their hope for better life.

[i] Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 171


[ii] Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p.60.


[iii] McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution, 1789-1799, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.89


[iv] Doyle, William. Origins of the French Revolution, 3rd ed., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, 237.


[v] Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2002, p. 106.

[vi] Perry, Marvin, Joseph Penden, and Theodore Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, p.164.


[vii] Perry, Marvin, Joseph Penden, and Theodore Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, p.256

[viii] Perry, Marvin, Joseph Penden, and Theodore Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, p.341

[ix] Perry, Marvin, Joseph Penden, and Theodore Von Laue. Sources of the Western Tradition. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, p.387

[x] McPhee, Peter. The French Revolution, 1789-1799, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p.214


[xi] McKay, Hill, Buckler, A History of Western Society 8th Ed. New York: Routledge, 2001, p.228


[xii] McKay, Hill, Buckler, A History of Western Society 8th Ed. New York: Routledge, 2001, p.296


[xiii] Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2002, p. 318


[xiv] Carlyle, Thomas. The French Revolution: A History. New York: The Modern Library, 2002, p.375


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