The period of the French Revolution in the history of France covers the years between 1789 and 1799, in which republicanss overthrew the monarchy and the Roman Catholic Church perforce underwent radical restructuring. While France would oscillate among republic, empire, and monarchy for 75 years after the First Republic fell to a coup by Napoleon Bonaparte, the revolution nonetheless spelled a definitive end to the ancien régime, and eclipses all subsequent revolutions in France in the popular imagination.
Many factors led to the revolution; to some extent the old order succumbed to its own rigidity in the face of a changing world; to some extent, it fell to the ambitions of a rising bourgeoisie, allied with aggrieved peasants and wage-earners and with individuals of all classes who had come under the influence of the ideas of the Enlightenment. As the revolution proceeded and as power devolved from the monarchy to legislative bodies, the conflicting interests of these initially allied groups would become the source of conflict and bloodshed.
Certainly, causes of the revolution must include all of the following:
Proto-revolutionary activity started when the French king Louis XVI (reigned 1774 - 1792) faced a crisis in the royal finances. The French crown, which fiscally exactly equated to the French state, owed considerable debt. During the régimes of Louis XV (ruled 1715 - 1774) and Louis XVI several different ministers, including Turgot and Jacques Necker, unsuccessfully proposed to revise the French tax system to tax the nobles. Such measures encountered consistent resistance from the parlements (law courts), which the nobility dominated.
The subsequent struggle with the parlements in an unsuccessful attempt to enact these measures displayed the first overt signs of the disintegration of the ancien régime. In the ensuing struggle:
The prospect of an Estates-General highlighted the conflict of interest between, on the one hand, the First and Second Estates (the clergy and nobility respectively) and, on the other, the Third Estate (in theory, all of the commoners; in practice the middle class or bourgeoisie).
According to the model of 1614, the Estates-General would consist of equal numbers of representatives of each Estate. The Third Estate demanded (and ultimately received) double representation (which they already had in the provincial assemblies). However, this double representation would prove something of a sham.
When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on May 51789, it became clear that the double representation had not, as it had appeared to some, already peacefully accomplished a revolution. Instead, it was at best a symbol. Voting would occur "by orders": the collective vote of the 578 representatives of the Third Estate would count exactly as heavily as that of each of the other Estates.
Royal efforts to focus solely on taxes failed totally. The Estates-General reached an immediate impasse, debating (with each of the three estates meeting separately) its own structure rather than the nation's finances. On May 28, 1789, the Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes (English: "Commons"), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. They proceeded to do so, completing the process on June 17. Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People". They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear that they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them.
Louis XVI shut the Salle des États where the Assembly met; the Assembly moved their deliberations to the king's tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (June 20, 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did forty-seven members of the nobility. By June 27 the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities. On July 9, the Assembly reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly.
In Paris, the Palais Royal and its grounds became the site of a continuous meeting. Some of the military leaned toward the popular cause.
On July 11, 1789, the king, acting under the influence of the conservative nobles of his privy council, banished the reformist minister Necker and completely reconstructed the ministry. Much of Paris, presuming this to be the start of a royal coup, moved into open rebellion. Some of the military joined the mob; others remained neutral.
On July 14, 1789, after four hours of combat, the insurgents seized the Bastilleprison, killing Marquis Bernard de Launay and several of his guard. Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners -- four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender -- the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the ancien régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (town hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal, he was assassinated.
The king and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. Lafeyette took up command of the National Guard at Paris; Jean-Sylvain Bailly -- leader of the Third Estate and instigator of the Tennis Court Oath -- became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The king announced his return from Versailles to Paris, where, on July 27, he accepted a tricolorecockade, as cries of "Long live the Nation" changed to "Long live the King".
Nonetheless, after this violence, nobles -- little assured by the apparent and, as it was to prove, temporary reconciliation of king and people -- started to flee the country as émigrés, some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.
Necker, recalled to power, experienced but a short-lived triumph. An astute financier but a less astute politician, he overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people's favor in his moment of apparent triumph.
Insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux.
On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly abolished feudalism, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.
While there would follow retreats, regrets, and much argument over the racbat au denier 30 ("redemption at a thirty-years' purchase") specified in the legislation of August 4, the course now remained set, although the full process would take another four years.
Factions within the Assembly began to become clearer. What would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution, was led at this time by the aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury. The "Royalist democrats" allied with Necker, inclined toward arranging France along lines similar to the British constitutionalal model, included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the Comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, Comte de Virieu.
The abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political center and the left.
In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under Lafayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.
Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the king on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. The king retained only a "suspensive veto": he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely.
The people of Paris thwarted Royalist efforts to block this new order: they marched on Versailles on October 5, 1789. After various scuffles and incidents, the king and the royal family allowed themselves to be brought back from Versailles to Paris.
The Assembly replaced the historic provinces with eighty-three départements, uniformly administered and nearly equal to one another in extent and population.
Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, to date the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, with the Assembly giving Necker complete financial dictatorship.
To no small extent, the Assembly addressed the financial crisis by having the nation take over the property of the Church (while taking on the Church's expenses), through the law of December 2, 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, the government introduced a new paper currency, assignats, backed by the confiscated church lands.
In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and the bishop of Clermont led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement ("jurors" or "constitutional clergy") and the "non-jurors" or "refractory priests" who refused to do so.