The French Revolution, also referred to as the Revolution of 1789, was one of the most significant events in the European history. It was a period of revolutionary turmoil, violence and upheaval, that ended with the abolition of the monarchy in France and the establishment of a republic under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte. Apart from being the event that transformed the socio-political landscape of France, the French Revolution is also considered to be the inspiration for many countries and societies in the world that decided to overthrow monarchy and adopt ideals of liberalism, universal suffrage, and nationalism in the years to come. One of the most significant events of the French Revolution that changed the course of political thinking across the world was the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen).
The Reign of Louis XVI
France held an important position in Europe, and had become one of the most populous countries in the continent by the time Louis XVI ascended the throne. The grandeur of the royalty, the nobility, and the bourgeois was in stark contrast with the abject poverty that rankled the rest of France. The costly Seven Year War had emptied the coffers of the country and unemployment was at its highest. Years of poor crops had led the country to the brink of hunger and resentment. The Queen Marie Antoinette lived a life of luxury and extravagance, earning herself the moniker Madame Deficit.
Discontent Among the Third Estate
Since the Middle Ages, France had been dictated by three estates – the clergy (First Estate), the nobility (Second Estate), and the commoners (Third Estate). The First and the Second Estates, however, had dominance over the Third, and the growing agitation of the latter was often ignored with a veto. It was at this time that newer thinkers began to inspire France with ideals of equality, fraternity, freedom, and revolution – the Age of Enlightenment had begun. The streets of Paris, however, remained steeped in violence and clamor as the price of bread skyrocketed.
Constitution of the National Assembly and the Great Fear
King Louis XVI decided to convene the Estates-General (les états généraux) – a meeting of the delegates of the three Estates – in May 1789. The Estates-General, however, got mired in a debate over the inadequate representation of the Third Estate that constituted around 98 percent of the population. The six-week standoff resulted in the Third Estate being locked out. On June 20, 1789, the delegates of the Third Estate, who now constituted the National Assembly, took the Tennis Court Oath, pledging to relentlessly pursue constitutional reforms and the demand for equal rights. However, escalating food crisis and assembling of additional troops by the king triggered panic among the peasants, who rose in revolt against feudalism in the countryside. This period was known as the Great Fear, and was marked by riots. Apprehension that the monarchy would dissipate the National Assembly finally led to the storming of the Bastille, a prison fortress, by common Parisians and the French Guards (Gardes Françaises) looking for arms and ammunition, on July 14, 1789.
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
The revolution spread like a wildfire across the country. By August 4, 1789 the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen that enshrines the ideals of democracy and liberty. After much debate and deliberation, France’s first written constitution was adopted on September 3, 1791. Radical thinkers like Maximilien de Robespierre, however, were not content with the political structure advocated in the constitution, and demanded for the establishment of a republic.
Fall of the Monarchy
Fueled by rumors and fears, women from Parisian markets took to the streets and surrounded the royal palace at Versailles in October 1789. The royal couple was moved to Paris. Over the next few months, the rage of the revolution descended to radicalism and the power now came to rest with the mob. The guillotine became the symbol of ultimate punishment.
In 1791, the king and queen, who were living as prisoners in Paris, tried to escape into Austria but were caught. By the following year, the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia, which were suspected of conspiring to restore the monarchy. On August 10, 1792, Parisians stormed the Tuileries Palace and arrested the king. By the next year, the royal couple was condemned to death and executed by guillotine, which brought the curtains down on the French monarchy.
The Rise of Napoléon Bonaparte
With the execution of the king, and the disastrous war taking a toll on its resources, France faced another internal crisis. The radical Jacobins seized control of the National Convention and what followed was a ten-month period that is referred to as the Reign of Terror. Those deemed enemies of the revolution underwent arbitrary trials and were mercilessly guillotined. By some estimates, over 17,000 people were killed, while many more died under suspicious circumstances. The intense turmoil that came to be known as the French Revolution lasted many more years, till Napoléon Bonaparte staged a coup d’état on November 9, 1799, and declared himself the first Consul of France.