The French Revolution...

As far as turning points in western history, the French Revolution is arguably the most influential in terms  of its impact on shaping future systems of government, justice and social structure.  Despite being at the heart of the Enlightenment, absolutist rule and colonial supremacy, France ignored deep economic and social injustices.  Consequently, a nation once feared and admired for its strength and prowess, fell into a period of chaos and revolution.  Ironically, the nation which began its transformation with an autocratic monarchy welcomed a similar autocratic dictator to bring order and stability.  The events from Louis XVI to Napoleon Bonaparte are one of history's most violent, yet ideological revolutions which transformed all elements of political and social culture.


Title:  French Revolution

I.  French Revolution - The Basics

A.  The Old Regime described the culture left by the middle ages and feudalism

B.  King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were unpopular with the people and made poor political and economic decisions

C.  Financial hardship, famine, social inequality, and political turmoil all contribute to the beginnings of the revolution

D.  Symbolic beginning of the revolution occurs with the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789 by an angry mob 

II.  French Revolution - Causes

A.  Louis XVI's indecisiveness, luxurious spending ( Palace of Versailles ) and costly wars brought France to bankruptcy 

B.  The Enlightenment - ideals such as natural rights, government as a social contract and "life, liberty and property" greatly influenced the well educated bourgeoisie 

C.  Marie Antoinette - unpopular Queen of France nicknamed Madame Deficit 

D.  Estates General - representative body based upon social classes

1.  First Estate - included members of the Roman Catholic clergy

a.  made up .5% of the population

b.  owned 10% of the land of France

c.  exempted from paying taxes and received special privileges under the law  


2.  Second Estate - included the nobility

a.  made up 2% of the population

b.  owned 20%of the land of France

c.  exempt from paying taxes and received special privileges under the law  

3.  Third Estate - included the bourgeoisie, wage earners and peasants

a.  made up 98% of the population

b.  owned 70% of the land of France

c.  paid around 1/2 of income in taxes and tithe to the church

E.  Famine - 1780's had a string of droughts which created a huge shortage of bread (the main food supply of the day)

F.  Rising middle class (bourgeoisie) - well-educated and eager to change the "old regime" to one of liberty for all, a fair tax system and democracy

III.  French Revolution - Events

A.  Calling of the Estates General - Louis XVI has no choice but to call this body into session in order to address the economic crisis of his country

B.  The National Assembly - the Third Estate forms this group and pledges to create a constitution for France

C.  Storming of the Bastille - on July 14, 1789 a mob of rioting over bread prices attack and capture this prison, a symbol of the tyranny of King Louis

D.  Great Fear - a time of mass chaos of rioting mobs throughout France due to the shortage of food, high prices, unemployment and little help from the government

E.  Declaration of the Rights of Man - the National Assembly adopts this into law protecting the rights of it citizens

1.  uses the American Declaration of Independence as a model

2.  states all men have natural rights, that is they are born with the right to life, liberty and property

3.  abolishes the special privileges of the first and second estates

4.  guarantees equality of all men

5.  declares freedom of religion

6.  identifies a taxation policy based upon what people can afford to contribute

F.  Legislative Assembly - new governing body created under a constitution whereby officially limiting the power of the King

1.  new assembly created laws however different groups formed with different ideas on how France should reform

2.  the representatives divided into three main groups:  radicals, moderates & conservatives

G.  The Radicals - by the summer of 1792, the radicals gain power of the new national convention

1.  members of the Jacobin clubs supplied many of radical ideas

2.  leaders emerge:  Jean Paul Marat, Georges Danton & Maximilian Robespierre

3.  desiring a "republic of virtue" the radicals work to end monarchy and maintain a state of revolution

4.  execution King Louis XVI and later Marie Antoinette

H.  The Reign of Terror - under the dictatorship of Robespierre, his goal was to cleanse the France 's enemies though terror

1.  create the Committee on Public Safety to root out enemies of the revolution

2.  3,000 die in Paris ;  up to 40,000 are killed during the terror

3.  Robespierre turned the terror on those opposing his power including Marat and Danton

F.  End of the Terror - 

1.  the terror finally turns on Robespierre himself and he is executed by the guillotine ending his tyranny

2.  a National Convention drafts a new constitution putting the power into the hands a five man Directory which proves to be weak, corrupt and ineffective

G.  Napoleon Bonaparte - the popular young military general by 1799 quickly obtained power (coup d'état) from the dissolved Directory and assumed dictatorial powers as the first consul of the French republic


IV.  French Revolution - Effects

A.  Democracy spreads throughout Europe

B.  people look to obtain the same goals of the revolution:  " Liberty , Equality, Fraternity"

C.  people expect civil liberties and social equality protected by their governments

D.  growth of a new, powerful force...nationalism; that is pride in one's national identity replace loyalty to the monarch

E.  inspires independence movements and revolution in Latin America  

F.  the French Revolution took the ideas of the Enlightenment and put them into action

Key Terms


well-educated middle class merchants and artisans who lacked (and resented) the status of nobility

Committee of Public Safety

a dictatorial committee during the reign of terror organized to identify and punish those found as "enemy of the state" 

coup d'état

fast seizing power of government by force

Declaration of the Rights of Man

National Assembly adopted these goals for the revolution including all men are created equal and have natural rights


those nobles who fled France for political reasons

Estates General

political body of France unneeded during the

Great Fear

following the storming of the Bastille, a wave of rioting chaos took to the countryside of France


bladed machine used during the reign of terror to decapitate "enemies of the revolution"


radical, middle class political club of revolutionary France seeking to remove the monarchy and install a republic

Legislative Assembly

Legislative body of France formed by the constitution of 1791 

" Liberty , Equality, Fraternity"

slogan of the people during the French Revolution

National Assembly

governing body of France in 1789 made up of members of the third estate and drafted a new constitution 

Old Regime

the old feudal social-political structure of France leftover from the middle ages leaving the vast majority of people with little power or wealth and a small privileged upper class

Reign of Terror

violent period of the French Revolution led by Robespierre who aimed an cleansing France by killing all enemies of the state 


group of wage earning poor that supported the radical of the Legislative Assembly

Tennis Court Oath

pledge taken by members of the National Assembly not to disband until they draft a new constitution for France  


Before and After

Before (Causes)


  • Locke, Rousseau, Montesquieu and others provided the foundation of revolutionary ideas
  • these ideas included: democracy, natural rights, equality, representative government, checks and balances, the purpose of government is to protect the rights of its citizens

American Declaration of Independence

  • the American colonies demonstrated that citizens could successfully fight for liberty, equality and representation

England 's Constitutional Monarchy

  • the Glorious Revolution created a limited monarchy and a Bill of Rights for its citizens

Social and Economic Injustice

  • the Old Regime left a legacy of unfair treatment and heavy taxation for members of the third estate
  • scarcity of bread, famine and unemployment plagued the masses
  • costly wars and frivolous spending of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette created more discontent

After (Effects)

Napoleonic Age / Nationalism

  • constant revolution led to the desire for stability
  • Napoleon provided stability and gave the French a strong sense of national identity and pride
  • his wars also helped unify the nations of Germany and Italy giving them a common enemy

Legacy of Democracy

  • overthrowing an absolute monarchy and replacing the entire Old Regime culture with one of democracy 
  • Napoleonic wars spread the ideals of the revolution to those he conquered

Social Equality and Justice

  • the revolution proved that liberties and social equality are worth fighting for

Latin American Independence Movements

  • leaders like Simón Bolívar, Toussaint L'Overture and Father Miguel Hidalgo look fought for equality, justice and self government