French Revolution: Causes, Stages & Timeline

17 Feb 2023  Read 538 Views

1789 is one of the most significant years in world history as it is famous for the French Revolution with its cries of ‘Liberté! Egalité! Fraternité!’ that led to the removal of the French upper classes. This revolution was an uprising against the absolute monarchy of the king and the privileges or wealth of the aristocrats or elites. One of the most crucial things to know about this topic is that before the French Revolution, the people of France were divided into social groups known as "Estates."

The First Estate were the clergy (church leaders), the Second Estate were the nobles, and the Third Estate were the peasants and commoners. This Third Estate was in the majority in terms of population. This article discusses the history, including causes, stages and timeline of the French Revolution in detail. So let’s get started.

Causes Of the French Revolution

Social issues – In the late 18th century, the social conditions of France were extremely unequal and exploitative. The clergy and the nobility (aristocrats) were the most privileged classes who formed the first two Estates in French society; they didn’t even pay taxes to the State, whereas the peasants and workers (non-aristocrats) formed the Third Estate were in the majority. They were burdened with heavy taxes with no political and social rights..

Economic concerns– Consequently, many wars were waged by Louis XVI, and the State coffers got empty. France’s involvement in the American War of independence made the circumstances even worse and more complex with a faulty taxation system. 

Political issues– The Bourbon king of France, Louis XVI, was an extremely autocratic and doubtful king who lived a life of obscene luxury. This resulted in discontent among the masses, who then were facing extreme poverty & hunger.

Intellectual– Philosophers like Rousseau promulgated the doctrine of equality of man & sovereignty of people and didn’t support the absolute monarchy. They played a crucial role in exposing the fault lines of the old political system.

Phases of the French Revolution

Estates-General Meeting

  • French aristocrats or French nobility were the privileged members of the French society, and despite the non-aristocratic members were more in number than the aristocrats in terms of population. Yet, they were dominated.

  • Before the meeting of the Estates-General on 5th May, members of the Third Estate (non-aristocratic class known by this) began to gather support for equal voting rights for them, which would be based on head and not by status. 

  • Whereas the middle class opined that fiscal & judicial reform was the need of the hour, but the nobles were against the idea of giving up the privileges they had enjoyed.

  • So, when the meeting was held, the question over this voting process turned to open hostility between the three classes, and the actual purpose of the meeting was defeated. Even the further talks failed & the third estate met alone and formally adopted the title of ‘National assembly’ on 17th June 1789. 

  • They assembled in a nearby indoor tennis court and took the oath of office. This came to be known as the Tennis Court Oath. The members of this new assembly decided not to disperse until their demands for reforms have been initiated. With no option left, Loius XVI had to absorb the three assemblies into the new order.

The French Revolution Begins

  • Now, the French Revolution finally began. The said National Assembly continued to meet at Versailles when at the same time, fear and violence was rampant in Paris.

  • On 14th July 1789, out of fear that King Louis XVI was about to arrest France’s newly constituted National Assembly as they stood firm with their demands at the nearby indoor tennis court, this led a crowd of Parisians (people of Paris, France) to successfully surround the Bastille, an old fortress that had been used as a state prison since 1659. 

  • This event marked the beginning of the French Revolution. As this event became a symbol of revolutionary struggle, so this led to a peasants revolt that saw many homes of tax collectors and aristocrats being burnt. 

  • This revolution caused the country's nobles or aristocrats to flee from the place. This period came to be known as the Great Fear, and the old order had finally ended.

Declaration of Rights of Man

  • Then on 4th August 1789, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of Rights of Man and of the Citizen; this charter was based on democratic principles, flowing from the philosophical and political ideas of all enlightenment thinkers such as Jena-Jacques Rosseau. This declaration was published on 26th August 1789.

  • The Constitution was then adopted on 3rd September 1791. This new step brought a new French society where the king was given limited powers. 

  • But this was not enough for the extremists of the National Assembly like Goerges Danton & Maximilien de Robespierre, who demanded the King's trial and a more republican form of government instead of just limiting the powers of the king.

Reign of Terror

  • This revolution witnessed more twists and turns when a group of insurgents (ones fighting against the King or aristocrats, or the government of the country) attacked Paris's royal residence and arrested Louis XVI on 10th August 1792.

  • The next step was that several people accused of being the ‘enemies of the revolution’ were massacred in Paris. The National Convention replaced the Legislative Assembly, which announced the establishment of the Republic of France and the abolition of absolute monarchy.

  • On 21st January 1793, King Louis XVI was condemned to death and executed for treason. His wife, Marie Antoinette, followed him nine months later. So, the execution of the king marked the beginning of the most violent phase of the French Revolution, hence, the Reign of Terror.

  • The extremists of the National Assembly Maximilien de Robespierre took full control of the National Convention and so under him, thousands were executed for suspected treason and counter-revolutionary activities. The Reign of Terror finally ended with Robespierre’s own execution on 28th July, 1794.

  • Robespierre’s death started a moderate phase during which the French people or Parisians revolted against the brutalities committed during this Reign of Terror. This was called the Thermidorian Reaction.

End of the French Revolution

On 22nd August 1795, the National Convention which now comprised of the moderates who successfully survived the excesses or brutalities of the Reign of Terror approved the creation of a fresh constitution which created France’s bicameral legislature. The power was vested in the hands of the Directory, a 5-member group appointed by the Parliament instead of any extremist or monarch, a good step indeed. Any opposition to this group was eliminated through the efforts of the army, which was then led by a successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte. 

  • As this Directory took control in 1795, the internal political system was yet unstable, four years passed with the failure of the Directory and on 9th November 1799, frustrated with their leadership Bonaparte staged a coup d’état & appointed himself as the “first consul or first leader”. 

  • Hence, the French Revolution was over and the beginning of Napoleonic era. Napoleon ruled for 15 years and got defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18th June, 1815. 

  • The battle was fought between Napoleon Bonaparte's French Army & a coalition led by the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blücher. 

  • The decisive battle ended French attempts to dominate Europe, and completely destroyed Napoleon's imperial power.

Let’s quickly revise the French Revolution with this timeline.

Timeline of the French Revolution

February 1787 

Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, France’s controller general of finances, assembles nobles & representatives of the bourgeoisie to talk on country’s budget deficit. He suggests taxing the privileged classes, but the assembly refuses to accept it & suggests convening the Estates-General.

May 5, 1789

The Estates-General, comprised of representatives from the First Estate (clergy), Second Estate (nobility), and Third Estate (the lower classes), meets at Versailles.

June 17, 1789

The third estate demanded equal voting rights, but it became disputed which lead the deputies of the Third Estate to declare themselves the National Assembly.

June 20, 1789

Royal officials lock the National Assembly hall; members of the assembly occupy the king’s indoor tennis court (Tennis Court Oath), promising not to disperse until the Assembly gives France a new constitution & fulfils the demand of the third estate.

June 9 1789

King Louis XVI urged the other two estates (first and second) to join the assembly, which took the official title of National Constituent Assembly & began to gather troops to disperse the body.

July 14, 1789

After this, Parisians were panicked about the possibility of the overthrowing of Third Estate by the King & his troops, so a large crowd seizes the Bastille state prison. (known as the Great Fear)

August 26–October 6, 1789

So, the National Constituent Assembly introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen The king refuses to sanction it, resulting in Parisians marching to Versailles and forcing the royal family back to Paris.

April 20, 1792

France declares war on Austria. For the following 7 years, the hostilities known as the French Revolutionary wars continue between France and several European powers.

September 20-21, 1792

The old Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention which meets, abolishes the monarchy, and establishes a republic.

January 21, 1793

Louis XVI, under this Convention, is executed for treason.

October 16, 1793

During the Reign of Terror, the government enacted harsh measures against those they considered enemies; Marie-Antoinette is executed by guillotine. The Reign of Terror took place due to extremists in the National Assembly, such as Maximilien Robespierre.

July 27–28, 1794

Robespierre was overthrown in the National Convention and executed the next day, putting an end to the Reign of Terror. After National Convention is dissolved, it brought a government of a five-person Directory and a bicameral legislature.

November 9, 1799

Military leader Napoleon Bonaparte overthrows the Directory and declared himself first consul, or leader, of France.

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 157 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Manager at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course). She is a patent analyst & had also done advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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