The French Revolution, also referred to as the Revolution of 1789, was one of the most significant events in European history. It was a period of revolutionary turmoil, of 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 redesigned 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).
France had held an important place in Europe and had become one of the most populous countries in the continent by the time Louis XVI ascended the throne of France. 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.
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 inspired 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 clamour as the price of bread skyrocketed.
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 about 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. Fears that the monarchy would dissipate the National Assembly finally led to the storming of the Bastille, a prison fortress looking for arms and ammunition on July 14, 1789 by common Parisians and the French Guards (Gardes Françaises).
The revolution spread like wildfire across the country and by August 4 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.
Fuelled by rumours and fears, women from Parisian markets took to the streets and surrounded the royal palace at Versailles in October 1789 and the royal couple is moved to Paris. Over the months to come 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 as the king and queen who have lived as prisoners in Paris try to escape into Austria, they are caught and by the following year the newly elected Legislative Assembly declared war against Austria and Prussia, which are suspected of planning to restoring the monarchy. On August 10, 1792, Parisians stormed the Tuileries Palace and arrested the King. By the next year the royal couple were condemned to death and executed.
With the execution of the King and with 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 10-month period that is referred to as the Reign of Terror. Those deemed enemies of the revolution underwent arbitrary trials and were mercilessly guillotined. Over 17000 people were killed and many more died in 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.