The French Revolution had just about everything you might associate with a revolution: ravenous royals, high-living aristocrats, failing grain harvests, food shortages, rising taxes and prices, impoverished peasants, angry townsfolk, sex, lies, corruption, violence, weirdos, rumours, conspiracies, state-sanctioned terror and head-chopping machines. Though it was not the first of the modern era, the French Revolution has become the measure by which other revolutions are 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 is now considered 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 and been loved and loathed in similar proportions.
On the surface, the French Revolution seems to have had reasonably straightforward causes. The French people had endured generations of inequality, under an exploitative social hierarchy that required them to do the work of the nation yet also carry its taxation burden. Though one of the world’s most expansive and profitable empires, France’s domestic finances were grossly mismanaged and drained by profligate spending and numerous foreign wars. Yet both issues were not predestined to cause a revolution: they might have been resolved with thoughtful reforms imposed by a steady hand. But by the late 1780s the people of French had become impatient for change. They had been 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 managed.The revolution unfolded in the late 1780s in a whirl of change and chaos. What began 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. The king, who sat at the center of this quagmire of competing interests, wasn’t 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 Bastille – was marked by great hopes and promises. 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: would they be satisfied with the moderate changes proposed by the men of 1789? In the end they were not, so the French Revolution devolved 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 which had 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 from 1792, so too did the national government, until there was no place in it for moderates. 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 that were too new to be predictable, too strong to be controllable and too mired in self-interest to be constructive.
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 within this short timeframe there were scores of 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 most significant events. For an overview of the revolution and its most significant events, please use the Resources links in the left-hand sidebar.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Michael McConnell and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The French Revolution”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/.