The French Revolution

Painting of French troops storming the Bastille
Credit: Getty Images

The French Revolution began in 1789 as a popular movement to reform the 'absolute' rule of the monarch, Louis XVI. However, by 1793 France was in the grip of the 'Terror', and in 1804 France returned to a dictatorship under Napoleon Bonaparte.

A number of factors caused the French Revolution:

  • a feudal aristocracy still ruled over the peasants as they had in the Middle Ages
  • the government was bankrupt and the King, Louis XVI, was weak
  • the writer Rousseau popularised the idea that kings did not have the right to 'absolute' rule, but that government was a 'social contract' between king and people

The 1780s were a time of bad harvests and rising prices. In 1789, money problems forced the King to call the 'Estates General' - a kind of parliament. He wanted to raise taxes.

The Estates did not give him more money, but instead presented thousands of lists of complaints, known as 'cahiers'. When the King tried to close down the Estates, the members took the 'Tennis Court Oath' on 20 June 1789. They declared themselves to be the 'National Assembly' and promised to keep meeting until the government was reformed and a new constitution was drawn up. They were supported by the mob, which stormed the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789.

The National Assembly adopted the Rights of Man, which states that: "Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights". They also abolished feudal rules and set up a parliament, called the 'The Convention' similar to Britain.

Painting of French troops storming the Bastille
Credit: Getty Images

However, in 1792 Austria and Prussia invaded hoping to intervene on behalf of Louis XVI. A few weeks later the monarchy in France was abolished and Louis XVI was executed in 1793.

  • In 1793, there was a rebellion in the Vendée against the new government that lasted until 1796.
  • The Convention decided to 'make Terror the order of the day', and set up the Committee of Public Safety, led by Maximilien Robespierre.
  • It passed the Law of Suspects, which gave the government the right to execute anybody who seemed a danger to the Revolution.
  • This started 'The Terror' – 40,000 people were executed.

In October 1795, The Convention used Napoleon Bonaparte and the army to crush riots. It was the end of the power of the Paris mob.

Napoleon Bonaparte was a soldier who rose during the Revolution and:

  • he seized control of France in 1799 and named himself First Consul
  • he then made himself Emperor in 1804 until 1815