The french revolution chapter summary

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This chapter begins with a survey of French problems on the eve of revolution. It then describes the revolution of 1789 and the reconstruction of French government as a constitutional monarchy, the second revolution that began in 1792, the foreign wars that France started in that year, and finally the infamous Reign of Terror and its aftermath.

Eighteenth-century France was a rich nation, but the government was deeply in debt. The monarchy was unable to come to terms with a resurgent aristocracy, and the aristocratic parlements won the battle for public opinion by presenting themselves as protectors of French liberty. When Louis XV tried to assess new taxes, the parlements declared the taxes illegal. Constant friction between Louis XVI and the aristocracy concerning fiscal and political reform resulted in the convocation of the Estates-General in 1787 by the Assembly of Notables; the Estates-General had not convened since 1614. In 1788, Louis XVI was forced to accept the convocation. But this aristocratic triumph unleashed social and political forces that neither nobles nor king could control. The Estates-General was composed of three groups: the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobility, and the Third Estate, which represented everyone else. After a political standoff among the estates in 1789, the Third Estate invited the others to join a new legislative body, the National Constituent Assembly. In August 1789, this Assembly tried to halt the spreading disorder in Paris (the Bastille had recently been stormed) by renouncing feudal dues, rights, and tithes and declaring that all Frenchmen were now subject to the same laws. On August 27, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Louis XVI, after first hesitating, sanctioned the measures.

After a period of reorganization, the Constitution of 1791 established a constitutional monarchy. In order to deal with the continuing financial crisis caused by the royal debt, the Assembly decided to confiscate and sell the property of the Catholic Church in France. This decision proved to be a serious blunder as it created formidable opposition within the French church. Many aristocrats, known as émigrés, left France and sought to foment counter-revolution.

During the short life of the Legislative Assembly (1791–1792), domestic political factions competed for power. In 1792, the Assembly was compelled by a hostile crowd to write a democratic constitution. That body, called the Convention, declared France a republic. This second revolution, as it was called, was quite radical; in January 1793, Louis XVI was executed.

By April 1793, France was at war with Austria, Prussia, Great Britain, Spain, Sardinia and Holland. The Convention established the Committees of General Security and Public Safety. The latter, under the leadership of Danton, Carnot, and Robespierre, eventually enjoyed almost dictatorial power. The major problem was to wage war and at the same time secure public support. In August, a levee en masse was issued that conscripted males into the army and directed economic production for military purposes. In November, the Convention outlawed the worship of God and tried to start a Cult of Reason, which alienated many Christians. In autumn of 1793, the Convention eliminated opposition through a Reign of Terror, which saw the execution of more than 25,000 people, including Robespierre himself.

A tempering of the revolution called the Thermidorian Reaction began in July, 1794. There was a general amnesty for political prisoners and the Convention issued a new constitution led by a five-person Directory. The winter of 1794–1795 saw serious food shortages, and riots had to be quelled by artillery. In March, 1795 the Convention concluded peace with Prussia and Spain. The war with Austria and Great Britain continued, however, and the new and unstable Directory increasingly depended upon the power of the army to govern the country.

A society and a political structure based on rank and birth had given way to one based on civic equality and social status. Representation had been established as a principle of practical politics. But domestic tranquility had not yet been assured. In the coming years, France would continue to influence western civilization under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte.

I. The Crisis of the French Monarchy

A. The Monarchy Seeks New Taxes

B. Necker’s Report

C. Colonne’s Reform Plan and the Assembly of Notables

D. Deadlock and the Calling of the Estates General

II. The Revolution of 1789

The Estates General Becomes the National Assembly

Fall of the Bastille

The “Great Fear” and the Night of August 4

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

The Parisian Women’s March on Versaille

III. The Reconstruction of France

Political Reorganization

Economic Policy

The Civil Constitution of the Clergy

Counterrevolutionary Activity

IV. The End of the Monarchy: A Second Revolution

A. Emergence of the Jacobin

B. The Convention and the Role of the Sans-culottes

V. Europe at War with the Revolution

A. Edmund Burke Attacks the Revolution

B. Suppression of Reform in Britain

C. The Second and Third Partitions of Poland, 1793, 1795

VI. The Reign of Terror

War with Europe

The Republic Defended

The “Republic of Virtue” and Robespierre’s Justification of Terror

Repression of the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women


Revolutionary Tribunals

The End of the Terror
VII. The Thermidorian Reaction

Establishment of the Directory

Removal of the Sans-culottes from Political Life
VIII. In Perspective

The financial crisis that impelled the French monarchy to call the Estates General
The transformation of the Estates General into the National Assembly, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the reconstruction of the political and ecclesiastical institutions of France
The second revolution, the end of the monarchy, and the turn to more radical reforms
The war between France and the rest of Europe
The Reign of Terror, the Thermidorian Reaction, and the establishment of the Directory

1. Why has France been called a rich nation with an impoverished government? How did the financial weaknesses of the French monarchy lay the foundations of the revolution of 1789?
2. What were Louis XVI’s most serious mistakes during the French Revolution? Had he been a more able ruler, could the French Revolution have been avoided or a constitutional monarchy could have succeeded? Did the revolution ultimately have little to do with the competence of the monarch?
3. How was the Estates General transformed into the National Assembly? How does the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen reflect the social and political values of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment? How were France and its government reorganized in the early years of the revolution? Why has the Civil Constitution of the Clergy been called the greatest blunder of the National Assembly?
4. Why were some political factions dissatisfied with the constitutional settlement of 1791? What was the revolution of 1792 and why did it occur? Who were the sans-culottes, and how did they become a factor in the politics of the period? How influential were they during the Terror in particular? Why did the sans-culottes and the Jacobins cooperate at first? Why did that cooperation end?
5. Why did France go to war with Austria in 1792? What were the benefits and drawbacks for France of fighting an external war in the midst of a domestic political revolution?
6. What were the causes of the Terror? How did the rest of Europe react to the French Revolution and the Terror? How did events in France influence the last two partitions of Poland?
7. A motto of the French Revolution was “equality, liberty, and fraternity.” How did the revolution both support and violate this motto? Did French women benefit from the revolution? Did French peasants benefit from it?


1. Chronology of Revolution: Below is a summary of the political phases of the French Revolution; a complete chronology of the revolution is given in the text.

Estates-General (May 1789 – June 1789): Monarchy still in control of government; war is the expected foreign policy of the ancien regime

National Assembly (1789–1791): Nominal absolute monarchy; state church with priests paid by the state

Legislative Assembly (1791–1792): Constitutional monarchy; war is promoted to solve domestic problems; state church

Convention (1792–1795): Committee of Public Safety administers government; universal manhood suffrage; Cult of Reason promoted; Reign of Terror (1792–1794)

Directory (1795–1799): Thermidorian Reaction; restricted franchise; separation of church and state promoted
2. Revolutionary Political Factions: During the short life of the Legislative Assembly (1791–1792), political factions competed for power. The best-organized faction was the Jacobins, who had been the most advanced group in the National Constituent Assembly and had wanted a republic rather than a constitutional monarchy. A group of Jacobins known as the Girondists assumed leadership in the National Assembly and declared war on Austria, believing that the war would bring the most radical revolutionaries to power. In September 1792, a Paris mob murdered about 1,200 people who were in the city jails and compelled the Legislative Assembly to call a new assembly to write a democratic constitution. That body, called the Convention, declared France a republic. The second revolution had been the work of Jacobins more radical than the Girondists and of the people of Paris known as the sansculottes (artisans, shopkeepers, wage earners, and some factory workers). The sansculottes wanted immediate relief from hunger and inflation, resented most forms of social inequality, and were suspicious of representative government. They opposed the unregulated economy that most Jacobins favored. But some extremely advanced Jacobins, known as the Mountain, began to work with the sansculottes. The willingness to cooperate with the forces of the popular revolution separated the Mountain from the Girondists. The Convention, under the domination of the Mountain and the sansculottes, tried and executed Louis XVI in 1793.


Civilization XI: The Worship of Nature. Time-Life. 52 min.

French Revolution. Coronet. 16 min.

The French Revolution: The Bastille. Learning Corporation of America. 28 min.
French Revolution: Death of the Old Regime. Encyclopaedia Britannica. 17 min.

The French Revolution
An Era of Revolution

On July 14, 1789, crowds stormed the Bastille, a prison in Paris. This event, whose only practical effect was to free a few prisoners, marked the first time the populace of Paris redirected the course of the revolution. Anonymous, France, 18th century, “Siege of the Bastille, 14 July, 1789.” Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France. Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
Well-meaning but weak and vacillating, Louis XVI (r. 1774–1792) stumbled from concession to concession until he finally lost all power to save his throne. Joseph Siffred Duplessis (1725–1802), “Louis XVI”. Versailles, France. Photograph copyright Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
Challenging the French Political Order

This late eighteenth-century cartoon satirizes the French social and political structure as the events and tensions leading up to the outbreak of the French Revolution unfolded. This image embodies the highly radical critique of the French political structure that erupted from about l787 when the nobility and church refused to aid the financial crisis of the monarchy.

This painting of the Tennis Court Oath, June 20, is by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825). In the center foreground are members of different estates joining hands in cooperation as equals. The presiding officer is Jean-Sylvain Bailly, soon to become mayor of Paris. Jacques-Louis David, “Oath of the Tennis Court, the 20th of June 1789.” Chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon, Versailles, France. Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
The Women of Paris marched to Versailles on October 5, 1789. The following day the royal family was forced to return to Paris with them. Henceforth, the French government would function under the constant threat of mob violence. Anonymous, 18th CE, “To Versailles, to Versailles”. The women of Paris going to Versailles, 7 October, 1789. French. Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France. Photograph copyright Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
Jean-Baptiste Delambre (1749–1822) was one of the French astronomers whose measurements of the arch of meridians formed the basis for establishing the length of the meter. Image Works/Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.
The assignats were government bonds that were backed by confiscated church lands. They circulated as money. When the government printed too many of them, inflation resulted and their value fell. Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz
In June 1791, Louis XVI and his family attempted to flee France. They were recognized in the town of Varennes, where their flight was halted and they were returned to Paris. This ended any realistic hope for a constitutional monarchy. © Bettmann/CORBIS
On January 21, 1793, the Convention executed Louis XVI by guillotine. Cliché Bibliotheque Nationale de France, Paris
Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) emerged as the most powerful revolutionary figure in 1793 and 1794, dominating the Committee of Public Safety. He considered the Terror essential for the success of the revolution. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lille. Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
On the way to her execution in 1793, Marie Antoinette was sketched from life by Jacques-Louis David as she passed his window. Jacques Louis David (1748–1825), “Marie-Antoinette brought to the guillotine (after a drawing by David who witnessed the execution).” Pen drawing. 1793. Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France. Bridgeman-Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
The Festival of the Supreme Being, which took place in June 1794, inaugurated Robespierre’s new civic religion. Its climax occurred when a statue of Atheism was burned and another statue of Wisdom rose from the ashes. Pierre-Antoine Demachy, “Festival of the Supreme Being at the Champ de Mars on June 8, 1794”. Musée de la Ville de Paris, Musée Carnavalet, Paris, France. Bridgeman–Giraudon/Art Resource, NY
Gracchus Babeuf was executed in 1797 for leading the “Conspiracy of Equals,” a radical plot to overthrow the Directory and redistribute property among all French citizens. © Michael Nicholson/CORBIS
Interactive Map
Map 18–1 FRENCH PROVINCES AND THE REPUBLIC In 1789, the National Constituent Assembly redrew the map of France. The ancient provinces (A) were replaced with a larger number of new, smaller departments (B). This redrawing of the map was part of the assembly’s effort to impose greater administrative rationality in France. The borders of the republic (C) changed as the French army conquered new territory.


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