This collection of French Revolution essay questions has been written and compiled by Alpha History authors, for use by teachers and students. They can also be used for short-answer questions, homework activities and other research or revision tasks. If you would like to contribute an essay question to this page, please contact Alpha History.
France before 1789
1. Evaluate the French royal court at Versailles, why it existed and the contribution it made to French government and society.
2. “The French nobility did little but concern themselves with leisure, finery, decadence, affairs and intrigues.” To what extent is this statement true in the context of late 18th century France?
3. The presence of things like lettres du cachet and the Bastille give the impression that pre-revolutionary France was an authoritarian society that oppressed personal liberty and freedom. To what extent was this true?
4. Examine the role of religion in 18th century France, both in ideological and practical terms. How did ordinary French people view the Catholic church and its clergy?
5. Identify and discuss tensions between the Three Estates that may have contributed to revolutionary sentiment in 18th century France.
6. To what extent was feudalism a cause of the French Revolution? Describe how feudal bonds and dues impacted on the ordinary people of France during the 18th century.
7. Explain why the taxation regime and the collection of tax revenue in 18th century France failed to meet the fiscal requirements of the nation.
8. Some historians argue that commerce and trade in France were restricted by regulations that were overbearing, complex and inconsistent. What were the grievances of the merchant and capitalist class in pre-revolutionary France?
9. Discuss how the strains and stresses of imperialism might have weakened the domestic government in 18th century France, paving the way for revolutionary sentiment.
10. Consider the political, economic and social position of women in 18th century France. Did the women of France have more motivation or potential for revolution than the men?
Government and royalty in the ancien regime
1. Louis XIV is once reported as saying “L’etat, c’est moi” (‘The state is me’). To what extent was this true, both of Louis XIV and his two successors?
2. Describe the relationship between the Bourbon monarchy and the French people in the century before 1789. How did French kings impose their will on the nation?
3. In what ways did the Roman Catholic religion support the Bourbon monarchy – and how was the church itself supported by the state?
4. Discuss the relationship between the Bourbon monarchy and the Second Estate. How did tensions between the king and his nobles shape the political landscape?
5. Evaluate Louis XVI and his character, personal abilities and his suitability for leadership. Was he a flawed king, or simply a victim of circumstance?
6. Critically examine the relationship between Louis XVI and his ministers during the 1780s.
7. Explain why Marie Antoinette was a target for intrigue, gossip and propagandists. To what extent was her reputation deserved?
8. The extravagant spending of the royal family is often advanced as a major cause of the French Revolution. To what extent was this true?
9. Explain how the ideological foundations of the French monarchy were challenged and possibly undermined by Enlightenment philosophers and writers.
10. According to Simon Schama, the Bourbon monarchy was threatened by “whispering campaigns”. To what is he referring to, and how did they endanger the monarchy?
The troubled 1780s
1. Giving close attention to specific writers, explain how the Enlightenment challenged and undermined the old regime in 18th century France.
2. What contribution did salons, cafes and other social gatherings make to the rising revolutionary sentiment of the 1780s?
3. “The libelles and political pornography of the 1780s contained no significant political ideas so had little impact on the old regime”. To what extent was this true?
4. Identify and discuss two individuals who attempted to achieve fiscal and political reform in France during the 1780s. To what extent were they successful?
5. Explain how France’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War impacted on the nation in moral, ideological and practical terms.
6. Discuss the actions of the parlements and the Assembly of Notables in the late 1780s. How did these bodies contribute to the developing revolution?
7. Explain the events of 1788 that led to Louis XVI calling for the convocation of the Estates-General.
8. What were the Cahiers de Doleances and what did they suggest about the mood of the French people on the eve of the revolution?
9. Why did French harvests fail in the late 1780s, leading to a downturn in agricultural production? What impact did this have on the lives of ordinary people?
10. What factors and forces led to the failure of reformist policies in the 1780s? Did these reforms fail because of resistant conservative interests or a disinterested, incompetent royal government?
The drama of 1789
1. Who was the Abbe Sieyes and what contribution did he make to the French Revolution, both in ideological and practical terms?
2. What happened at the Reveillon factory in Paris in April 1789? What working class grievances, fears and rumours triggered these events?
3. Explain how issues of ceremony, procedure and voting created divisions within the Estates-General when it met in mid-1789.
4. For what reasons did the National Assembly form in June 1789? Was the formation of this body inevitable – or did it occur because of chance and circumstance?
5. “From the beginning of 1789, the push for economic and fiscal reform in France became a push for political reform.” Explain the meaning of this statement, referring to key ideas and events of 1789.
6. Discuss the context, reasons and outcomes of the sacking of Jacques Necker on July 11th 1789. What impact did this have on the unfolding revolution?
7. Why has the storming of the Bastille become the best-known event of the French Revolution? What were the outcomes of this event, in both real and symbolic terms?
8. What were the causes and outcomes of the Great Fear? Was this event evidence that the French peasantry was a revolutionary class?
9. Why did the newly formed National Constituent Assembly move to abolish feudalism in France on August 4th? How sincere were these reforms and did they last?
10. On the surface, the relocation of the royal family from Versailles to Paris, a few miles away, seems a minor event. Was this really the case? Why did the king and his family relocate and what impact did this have on the revolution?
Creating a new society
1. Examine the background, motives and political values of those who sat in the National Constituent Assembly between 1789 and its dissolution in 1791.
2. What steps did the National Constituent Assembly take to abolish or replace the political institutions and social inequalities of the ancien regime?
3. While many aspects of the French Revolution have been forgotten or discredited, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has endured. Summarise the political values and ideas contained in this critical document.
4. The most influential political figure of 1789-1791, argue many historians, is the Marquis de Lafayette. Describe Lafayette’s background, attributes and political values. To what extent did he truly represent the revolution in France?
5. Evaluate the political leadership of Honore Mirabeau in the revolution between June 1789 and his death in April 1791. Did Mirabeau seek to advance revolutionary change – or to restrict it?
6. What were the political, social and economic objectives of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy? Discuss the impact this reform had on the clergy, the king and the French people in general?
7. How successful was the National Constituent Assembly in resolving the economic and fiscal problems of the ancien regime? Refer to three specific policies in your answer.
8. Evaluate the relationship between the National Constituent Assembly and the French peasantry and working classes. Did the Assembly implement policies that improved living and working conditions for ordinary people?
9. To what extent did the revolution enjoy popular support around France by the end of 1790? Which people, groups or regions were actively opposing the revolution?
10. What was the ‘flight to Varennes’ and why did it change the political landscape in the new society?
The descent into radicalism
1. What were the causes and outcomes of the Champ de Mars massacre? How and why did this event change the development of the new society?
2. Evaluate the brief life and political impact of the Legislative Assembly. Did this body suffer from internal failings – or was it simply a victim of treacherous times?
3. Discuss the fate of the moderate leaders Mirabeau, Lafayette and Bailly during the radical period. What were the events and factors that undermined their leadership?
4. How did France come to find itself at war with other European powers from 1792 onwards? What impact did war have on the government?
5. Explain how radical writers like Jean-Paul Marat and Camille Desmoulins influenced the development of the new society between 1789 and 1794.
6. What were the political clubs and what role did they play in the evolving new society? Discuss three specific clubs in your answer.
7. Why is August 10th 1792 considered a pivotal day in the course of the revolution? What impact did the events of this day have on French government and society?
8. Evaluate the fate of the king between June 1791 and his execution in January 1793. Could Louis XVI have saved himself – or was he already doomed?
9. Who were the sans culottes and what were their grievances? Referring to at least three specific events, explain how they influenced the national government between 1791 and 1793.
10. Explain the composition of the National Convention and its various political divisions and factions.
The Terror and beyond
1. In what ways was French society reformed and reinvented between 1792 and 1794? Identify and discuss five elements of the ancien regime and its society that were abolished or reformed by the National Convention.
2. What was the Committee of Public Safety? How did this body come to possess arbitrary power – and what did it do with this power?
3. Identify and discuss three events or factors that you believe were the most significant causes of the Reign of Terror.
4. Explain the purpose and operation of the Paris Revolutionary Tribunal. How did these change as the Terror intensified in late 1793 and 1794?
5. Discuss the arguments advanced by Robespierre and his followers to justify the use of revolutionary terror.
6. What was the Cult of the Supreme Being and how successful was it in achieving its objectives?
7. According to one historian, the revolution began to “eat its own children” in early 1794. Explain the meaning and validity of this statement.
8. Identify and discuss reasons for the arrest and execution of Robespierre and his supporters in July 1794.
9. What steps did the Thermidorian leaders take to wind back the Terror and purge France of Jacobinism?
10. “The leaders of Thermidor attempted to return France to the political, economic and social values of 1789.” To what extent is this true? Discuss, referring to specific policies.