Social 20: A VERY Quick Rundown of the French Revolution

Why do we still study the French Revolution??
The French Revolution marked the beginning of the modern era of democracy. Most of the most powerful countries in the world today are democracies, but this was not the case before the French Revolution. Although the American Revolution occurred two years prior to the FrenchRevolution the difference between them is that France attempted to restructure itself as a nation whereas the USA sought to become its own.

Feudalism: Was the most prevalent form of government in medieval Europe. A King/Queen was at the top of the social/power hierarchy. The monarch would grant power and land to his/her nobles who would then in turn do so for those below them on the social hierarchy. At the very bottom were peasants who had no or little political rights. Feudalism looked somewhat differently from country to country.

Absolute Monarchy: Exemplified by French King Louis XIV (14th) A newer and more powerful form of monarchy where the King/Queen was in absolute control of all aspects of the government. In the old form the King relied on support of his nobility, but in absolutism he did not have to, he had it.

Divine Right of Kings: The belief that God has appointed the monarch as the king and therefore he receives his authority directly from God, and answers only to God. – in a highly religions country like France this would ensure the power of the monarchy.

Old Regime – Frances hereditary class system – class born into, remain in.

  • Estate – all French people belonged to one of three. Determined legal rights and status
    • First Estate – Clergy
      • Catholic clergy (religious leaders)
      • No taxes
      • Lived in great style
    • Second Estate – Nobles
      • Old royalty, land owners
      • @2% of pop. Own 25% of land, don’t pay taxes
      • Special social and political privileges (high positions in govt, church, army)
      • Lived in great style
      • Income from peasants that lived and worked their land
    • Third Estate – Others
      • Bourgeoisie – merchants, bankers, artisans, no power, high taxes
      • Working class – low wages
      • Peasants(farmers) 80% of population
      • Pd. ½ of all taxes (tithe to church, feudal dues to nobles, land tax to king)
      • 97% of all French
    • Why no taxes for rich/powerful? – kept them on King’s side
    • How did third estate feel? – 97% of population against the King

Factors/Causes of the Revolution

    • Financial problems
      • Taxes – peasants pay most of taxes, nobility and clergy exempt
      • Debt
        • Gov. gave $6 million to American Colonists to fight against England in Revolutionary War
        • 50% of national budget paid for loans to fight England
        • 25% paid for military expenditures
        • 6% paid for parties, clothing, expensive lifestyle of the king and queen
        • Crop failure – leads to starvation
        • Growing inflation due to debt
    • Enlightenment
      • John Lock’s ideas of natural rights to life, liberty, property
      • Lock’s ideas of the right to overthrow government if not protecting your rights
    • Weak Leader
      • Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette
        • Very Young (19/18yrs)
        • Make bad decisions
    • Social Classes –
      • 1st and 2nd have special privileges
      • 3rd estate is 97% of population
      • Bourgeoisie (middle class) of 3rd Estate pay most of the taxes, lead the revolution

Estates General

    • Meeting of 3 estates to make laws
    • Called by Louis XVI to get 1 & 2 Estates to pay taxes/raise $
    • 1st time met in 175 yrs (1614)
    • each estate gets one vote (third estates calls for individual vote)
    • 1 & 2 band together to block 3rd Estate
    • 3rd Estate leaves and forms the National Assembly

3 Types of citizen action – taken by French Citizens during therevolution to change their government
1. Social Protests – citizens demonstrate against a government action or policy they want to change
2. Political Action – citizens write or change a law to change a government policy or action
3. Revolution – citizens attempt a radical change in their government usually through an overthrow of the existing government

National Assembly – Political Action

    • meet on Tennis Court
    • Tennis Court oath – vow to not leave until write a constitution for France = Tennis Court Oath
    • King orders 1st and 2nd estate to join National Assembly
      • Why? Fear of what 3rd Estate might accomplish
      • 3rd Estate now has majority vote
    • King gathers troops for his protection – makes people think he’s going to break up the National Assembly

Storming of the Bastille – July 14, 1789 – Revolution

  • Bastille – jail for political prisoners & where weapons held
  • Bastille symbolizes injustices of Monarchy
  • 3rd Estates – storm jail and let prisoners out
  • Symbolic beginning of the French Revolution, and Frances Independence Day

  • Declaration of the Rights of Man & Citizens (Part of FrenchConstitution Today) – Political Action
    • Purpose to establish equality in France and abolish the class system
    • Incorporated Enlightenment ideas
      • Montesquieu’s ideas of separation of powers
      • Rousseau’s belief in the will of the majority
      • Locke’s beliefs in natural rights
      • Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence
    • Louis XVI rejects declaration

March on Versailles – Social Protest

  • 6000 angry women march on Versailles
  • Protesting against food shortages and price of bread
  • Want king to move to Paris and accept the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and National Assembly
  • Louis XVI arrested and forced to leave Versailles for Paris

Constitution of 1791 – Political Action

  • Made France a Constitutional Monarchy
    • Unicameral legislature (one house legislature) called National Convention
    • King as executive
    • Everyone equal, all legislators get a vote
    • Delegates seated by their political beliefs

3 political groups in the Legislative Assembly
Left Center Right
Radical Moderates Reactionary 
Big change Open to some change Want to return to past policies
Support Democracy Support Constitutional Monarchy Support Absolute Monarchy
Jacobins Plain Emigres

Decline of Monarchy

  • Jacobins start to gain control in 1792 – want a Republic
  • Louis XVI is tried before Convention and convicted of conspiring against the liberty of a nation
    • Executed by the guillotine
  • Austria and Prussia declare war on France – ***fearful ofrevolution spreading to Austria

Reign of Terror

  • Robespierre
    • Jacobin – wants change from ltd monarchy to republic
    • Executes anyone related to monarchy (priests, nobles)
    • Executes “traitors” – 40K mostly commoners
    • Killed by guillotine by others afraid of him killing them
    • Death ended violence
  • Committee for Public Safety
    • Neighbor hood watch committees hunted down suspected traitors and turned them over to the courts
    • Neighbor turned on neighbor, many innocent people executed


  • New Constitution
    • 2 House legislature
    • 5-man executive committee
    • power more divided – sounds good? But is it? What challenges?
    • Can’t make decisions, debate, but nothing accomplished
    • Growing gap between rich and poor, many dissatisfied
    • French people looked for leadership

Napoleon Bonaparte

  • General in Army
    • Short and used optical illusions to make him look taller – Napoleon Complex (inferiority complex by short people – try to overcompensate their handicap by trying to be successful in other areas)
    • *People except him because he brought stability toFrance after years of Revolutions
    • Joins leaders in a coup d’etate – (military leaders seize power) against Directory (1799)
  • Dictator – 1802 Napoleon names himself Consul for life
  • Contributions
    • Napoleonic Code – old laws confusing – new law code based on Enlightenment ideas such as equality and freedom of religion but placed state above the individual (censorship, women’s rights decreased)
    • Created Bank of France – National Bank required every citizen pay taxes, Money used to make loans to businesses, controls money supply (inflation, recession)
    • Education under control of govt. – lycees created for secondary education
  • Empire Building
  • By 1812 Napoleon controlled most of Europe
    • Continental System – economic warfare against GB, ordered all Nations to stop trade with British; Required Russia and Prussia to go along – Hurts everyone’s economy except France’s (example of protectionism)
    • People resented paying taxes to France & sending soldiers to serve in French Army
    • Resentment created feeling of Nationalism – desire for self-rule and return to own customs
      • Spain and Prussia revolt against Napoleon

Napoleon’s 3 Mistakes

  • Battle of Trafalger – challenges the GB’s navy (the most powerful navy in the world) – loses

Invasion of Russia

    • May 1812, Napoleon’s massive army (600,000 from across Europe) begin march toward Moscow
    • Scorched Earth Policy – Russians light anything that can help Napoleon on fire and burn to the ground
    • Sept. Napoleon’s army reaches Moscow, but soon after Russian winter sets in. Napoleon delays retreat. 400,000French Soldiers die of cold and starvation on retreat out of Russia
    • Russian, Prussian, Spanish, English, and Austria join together to defeat Russia
    • March 1814 Napoleon surrenders in Paris
    • Exiled to island of Elba (Russians didn’t want to kill him and make him a martyr)
  • Battle of Waterloo
  • Louis XVIII restored to throne
  • Napoleon didn’t learn his lesson; tries to conquer again
  • Returns to Paris and rules for 100 days
  • European govt determined to stop him
  • Battle of Waterloo – Napoleon defeated and captured at Waterloo in June 1815
  • Exiled to St. Helena’s in S. Atlantic
  • Dies in 1821
Mr. McIntosh

Teacher - Humanities

In a typical year I teach a range of courses from elementary to high school. I am our school's Social Studies specialist, teaching high school social, as well as a member of the PE team.

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