The French Revolution

french revolutionThe French Revolution had just about everything you might associate with a revolution: ravenous royals, extravagant aristocrats, failing grain harvests, food shortages, rising taxes and prices, impoverished peasants, angry townsfolk, sex, lies, corruption, violence, radicals and weirdos, rumours and conspiracies, state-sanctioned terror and head-chopping machines. Though not the first revolution of the modern era, the French Revolution has become the measure by which other revolutions are often weighed. It has been analysed, interpreted, debated and written about by millions of people: from scholars on high, to students in high school. The capture and destruction of the Bastille on July 14th 1789 – a fairly banal event in itself – has become one of the defining moments in Western history. The men and women of the revolution – Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Lafayette, Mirabeau, Danton, Marat, Robespierre and others – have divided opinions for more than two centuries. The question of whether the French Revolution was a leap of progress or a descent into barbarism is one of history’s most enduring problems.

On the surface, the French Revolution had reasonably straightforward causes. For generations the French people had endured inequality and exploitation, under a social hierarchy that required them to carry out the work of the nation yet also carry its taxation burden. France was one of the world’s most expansive and profitable empires, yet its domestic finances were grossly mismanaged and its treasury had been drained by profligate spending and unnecessary foreign wars. Financial mismanagement and social inequality alone did not make revolution inevitable: they might have been resolved with thoughtful reforms imposed by a steady hand. Unfortunately for France, however, the nation was devoid of great rulers, statesmen and reformers. By the 1780s France’s stagnation had reached a point where the people were impatient for change and unwilling to leave reform in the hands of their king and his ministers. The French people were roused to action by political propaganda that took many forms: from high-minded Enlightenment philosophy, to populist pamphlets about the rights of the common people, to political comedies and satires, to vile anti-royalist smut. Harvest failures, food shortages and price rises in 1788-89 were dangerous exclamation points at the end of this turbulent decade. France was bursting for political, economic and social change, though few had clear ideas how this could be effectively managed.

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The early months of the revolution were optimistic, as suggest by this image

The revolution unfolded in the late 1780s in a whirl of change and chaos. What started as a dispute over proposed tax reforms soon evolved into a movement for political reform. The nobility wanted autonomy and a share of royal power; the wealthy bourgeoisie wanted political representation; the urban working classes wanted more food at lower prices; the peasants wanted relief from feudal bonds and restrictions. Sitting at the center of this quagmire of competing interests was the king, Louis XVI, who was not sure what he wanted, or indeed what to do. Ultimately the revolution began without him – and at great pace. Things happened so quickly and spontaneously that the most brilliant political mind on Earth could not have foreseen the outcome. The flashpoint of the revolution in 1789 – the formation of a National Assembly and the destruction of Paris’ notorious fortress, the Bastille – was marked by a degree of hope and optimism. But there was also a lingering sense of grievance, injustice and unrest, a belief that not enough had been done. More than a century of political and social pressure had been lifted from the French people – but would the moderate changes proposed by the liberals of 1789 satisfy them?

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The guillotine and its constant use in 1793-94 has become an enduring motif of the revolution

In the end they were not, and the French Revolution quickly disintegrated into disorder and radicalism, then violence and terror. The revolution of 1789 had inspired and involved the people from the outset. But those who comprised the first revolutionary government – the liberal-minded aristocrats and the bourgeois lawyers – had also kept the people at arms’ length from power. The dire economic conditions, food shortages and inflation that sparked the people’s revolution were never adequately rectified by the new government. And Paris, always the beating heart of the revolution, was a cruel and desperate place, full of radical journalists, poisonous rumours, conspiracy theories and savage reaction. The transition of political power from the king to a national assembly did not change this; in many respects it became worse. As Paris radicalised in 1792 so too did the national government, until there was no place in it for moderates. The violence of the sans culottes, the radicalism of the Jacobins and their fixation with ‘protecting the revolution’ generated so much paranoia that by the autumn of 1793, the revolution had begun to eat its own. The French Revolution had unleashed forces too new to be predictable, too strong to be controllable and too mired in self-interest to be constructive.

The revolutionaries gave a name to what they had abolished. They called it the ancien regime. In doing so they defined not so much what they had suppressed, but more what they wanted to create – a complete break with the past, which was to be cast into the shadows of barbarism.”
Francois Furet, historian

The French Revolution is a difficult historical event to learn. The revolution itself spans barely a decade – from the fiscal crisis of the late 1780s to the Thermidorian reaction of the mid-1790s – but this short timeframe contained many significant events, people, groups, ideas and issues. There were frequent changes in government, particularly in the new regime. Each phase of the revolution produced different political bodies with similar names: the National Constituent Assembly, the Legislative Assembly and the National Convention. Each national legislature was a composite of different factions, while even more political clubs operated behind the scenes. France was a nation divided and, by late 1793, in a state of civil war – so the revolution in Paris was different from the revolution in Lyon, in Orleans or in the Vendee. This Alpha History section examines and summarises the main aspects of the French Revolution: one of modern history’s most complex but also most significant events. For an overview of the revolution and essential topics, please use the Resources links in the left-hand sidebar.

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