French Revolution

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French Revolution,

political upheaval of world importance in France that began in 1789.

Origins of the Revolution

Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.

France was still governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt. For the most part, peasants were small landholders or tenant farmers, subject to feudal dues, to the royal agents indirect farmingfarming,
in the history of taxation, collection of taxes through private contractors. Usually, the tax farmer paid a lump sum to the public treasury; the difference between that sum and the sum actually collected represented his profit or loss.
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 (collecting) taxes, to the corvéecorvée
, under the feudal system, compulsory, unpaid labor demanded by a lord or king and the system of such labor in general. There were national and local variations, but in broad terms the corvée proper included work on the lord's portion of the manorial
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 (forced labor), and to tithes and other impositions. Backward agricultural methods and internal tariff barriers caused recurrent food shortages, which netted fortunes to grain speculators, and rural overpopulation created land hunger.

In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the EnlightenmentEnlightenment,
term applied to the mainstream of thought of 18th-century Europe and America. Background and Basic Tenets

The scientific and intellectual developments of the 17th cent.
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. VoltaireVoltaire, François Marie Arouet de
, 1694–1778, French philosopher and author, whose original name was Arouet. One of the towering geniuses in literary and intellectual history, Voltaire personifies the Enlightenment.
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 attacked the church and absolutism; Denis DiderotDiderot, Denis
, 1713–84, French encyclopedist, philosopher of materialism, and critic of art and literature, b. Langres. He was also a novelist, satirist, and dramatist. Diderot was enormously influential in shaping the rationalistic spirit of the 18th cent.
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 and the EncyclopédieEncyclopédie
, the work of the French Encyclopedists, or philosophes. The full title was Encyclopédie; ou, Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts, et des métiers.
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 advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de MontesquieuMontesquieu, Charles Louis de Secondat, baron de la Brède et de
, 1689–1755, French jurist and political philosopher. He was councillor (1714) of the parlement of Bordeaux and its president (1716–28) after the death of an uncle, whom he succeeded in both title
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 made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de CondorcetCondorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat, marquis de
, 1743–94, French mathematician, philosopher, and political leader, educated at Reims and Paris. He became a member of the Academy of Sciences in 1769 and of the French Academy in 1782.
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 preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. RousseauRousseau, Jean Jacques
, 1712–78, Swiss-French philosopher, author, political theorist, and composer. Life and Works

Rousseau was born at Geneva, the son of a Calvinist watchmaker.
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, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocratsphysiocrats
, school of French thinkers in the 18th cent. who evolved the first complete system of economics. They were also referred to simply as "the economists" or "the sect." The founder and leader of physiocracy was François Quesnay.
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 and attempted (1774–76) by A. R. J. TurgotTurgot, Anne Robert Jacques
, 1727–81, French economist, comptroller general of finances (1774–76). The son of a rich merchant, he showed precocious ability at school and at the Sorbonne.
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, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.

The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques NeckerNecker, Jacques
, 1732–1804, French financier and statesman, b. Geneva, Switzerland. In 1750 he went to Paris and entered banking. He rose rapidly to importance, established a bank of his own, and became a director of the French East India Company.
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 vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de CalonneCalonne, Charles Alexandre de
, 1734–1802, French statesman, controller general of finances (1783–87). Faced with a huge public debt and a steadily deteriorating financial situation, Calonne adopted a spending policy to inspire confidence in the nation's financial
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, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.

The Estates-General and the National Assembly

Étienne Charles Loménie de BrienneLoménie de Brienne, Étienne Charles
, 1727–94, French statesman, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. He was archbishop of Toulouse (1763–88) and of Sens (1788) and a member of the French Academy.
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 succeeded Calonne. His attempts to procure money were thwarted by the Parlement of Paris (see parlementparlement
, in French history, the chief judicial body under the ancien régime. The parlement consisted of a number of separate chambers: the central pleading chamber, called the Grand-Chambre; the Chambre des Requêtes
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), and King Louis XVILouis XVI,
1754–93, king of France (1774–92), third son of the dauphin (Louis) and Marie Josèphe of Saxony, grandson and successor of King Louis XV. In 1770 he married the Austrian archduchess Marie Antoinette.
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 was forced to agree to the calling of the States-General. Elections were ordered in 1788, and on May 5, 1789, for the first time since 1614, the States-GeneralStates-General
or Estates-General,
diet or national assembly in which the chief estates (see estate) of a nation—usually clergy, nobles, and towns (or commons)—were represented as separate bodies.
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 met at Versailles. The chief purpose of the king and of Necker, who had been recalled, was to obtain the assembly's consent to a general fiscal reform.

Each of the three estates—clergy, nobility, and the third estate, or commons—presented its particular grievances to the crown. Innumerable cahiers (lists of grievances) came pouring in from the provinces, and it became clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the States-General. The aspirations of the bourgeoisie were expressed by Abbé SieyèsSieyès, Emmanuel Joseph
, 1748–1836, French revolutionary and statesman. He was a clergyman before the Revolution and was known as Abbé Sieyès.
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 in a widely circulated pamphlet that implied that the third estate and the nation were virtually identical. The question soon arose whether the estates should meet separately and vote by order or meet jointly and vote by head (thus assuring a majority for the third estate, whose membership had been doubled).

As Louis XVI wavered, the deputies of the third estate defiantly proclaimed themselves the National Assembly (June 17); on their invitation, many members of the lower clergy and a few nobles joined them. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, the jeu de paume, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27 the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly. At the same time, however, he surrounded Versailles with troops and let himself be persuaded by a court faction, which included the queen, Marie AntoinetteMarie Antoinette
, 1755–93, queen of France, wife of King Louis XVI and daughter of Austrian Archduchess Maria Theresa and Holy Roman Emperor Francis I. She was married in 1770 to the dauphin, who became king in 1774.
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, to dismiss (July 11) Necker.

The Revolution of 1789

Parisians mobilized, and on July 14 stormed the BastilleBastille
[O.Fr.,=fortress], fortress and state prison in Paris, located, until its demolition (started in 1789), near the site of the present Place de la Bastille. It was begun c.1369 by Hugh Aubriot, provost of the merchants [mayor] of Paris under King Charles V.
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 fortress. Louis XVI meekly recalled Necker and went to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where he accepted the tricolor cockade of the Revolution from the newly formed municipal government, or commune. The national guard was organized under the marquis de LafayetteLafayette, or La Fayette, Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de
, 1757–1834, French general and political leader. He was born of a distinguished family and early entered the army.
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. This first outbreak of violence marked the entry of the popular classes into the Revolution. Mobilized by alarm over food shortages and economic depression, by hopes aroused with the calling of the States-General, and by the fear of an aristocratic conspiracy, peasants pillaged and burned châteaus, destroying records of feudal dues; this reaction is known as the grande peur [great fear].

On Aug. 4, the nobles and clergy in the Assembly, driven partly by fear and partly by an outburst of idealism, relinquished their privileges, abolishing in one night the feudal structure of France. Shortly afterward, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and CitizenDeclaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,
a fundamental document of French constitutional history, drafted by Emmanuel Sieyès, adopted by the Constituent Assembly on Aug. 26, 1789, and embodied in the French constitution of 1791 as a preamble.
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. Rumors of counterrevolutionary court intrigues circulated, and on Oct. 5, 1789, a Parisian crowd, aroused by rising food prices, marched to Versailles and brought the king and queen, "the baker and the baker's wife," back to the Tuileries palace in Paris. The Assembly also removed to Paris, where it drafted a constitution. Completed in 1791, the constitution created a limited monarchy with a unicameral legislature elected by voters with property qualifications.

Of gravest consequence were the Assembly's antireligious measures. Church lands were nationalized (1789), religious orders suppressed (1790), and the clergy required (July, 1790) to swear to adhere to the state-controlled Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only a bare majority (52%) of all priests took the oath; disturbances broke out, especially in W France; and Louis XVI, though forced to assent, was roused to action. Numerous princes and nobles had already fled abroad (see émigréémigré
, in French history, a refugee, usually royalist, who fled the French Revolution and took up residence in a foreign land. The émigrés comprised all classes, but were disproportionately drawn from the privileged.
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); Louis decided to join them and to obtain foreign aid to restore his authority. The flight (June 20–21, 1791) was halted at Varennes, and the king and queen were brought back in humiliation. Louis accepted the constitution.

Factionalism and War

On Oct. 1, 1791, the Legislative Assembly convened. Some members joined the various political clubs of Paris, such as the FeuillantsFeuillants
, political club of the French Revolution. It emerged in July, 1791, when those Jacobins who opposed a petition for the dethronement of the king split off and began to meet at the former Feuillant convent. Its chief member was Antoine Barnave.
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 and JacobinsJacobins
, political club of the French Revolution. Formed in 1789 by the Breton deputies to the States-General, it was reconstituted as the Society of Friends of the Constitution after the revolutionary National Assembly moved (Oct., 1789) to Paris.
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. Most deputies were middle-of-the-roaders, swayed by the more radical clubs and by the GirondistsGirondists
or Girondins
, political group of moderate republicans in the French Revolution, so called because the central members were deputies of the Gironde dept. Girondist leaders advocated continental war.
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. Jacobinism was gaining in this period; "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" became a catch phrase.

Meanwhile abroad, early sympathy for the Revolution was turning to hatred. Émigrés incited the courts of Europe to intervene; in France, war was advocated by the royalists as a means to restore the old regime, but also by many republicans, who either wished to spread the revolution abroad or hoped that the threat of invasion would rally the nation to their cause. The Feuillant, or right-wing, ministers fell and were succeeded by those later called Girondists. On Apr. 20, 1792, war was declared on Austria, and the French Revolutionary WarsFrench Revolutionary Wars,
wars occurring in the era of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era, the decade of 1792–1802. The wars began as an effort to defend the Revolution and developed into wars of conquest under the empire.
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 began. Early reverses and rumors of treason by the king again led Parisian crowds to direct action.

The Revolution of 1792

An abortive insurrection of June 20, 1792, was followed by a decisive one on Aug. 10, when a crowd stormed the Tuileries and an insurrectionary commune replaced the legally elected one (see Commune of ParisCommune of Paris,
insurrectionary governments in Paris formed during (1792) the French Revolution and at the end (1871) of the Franco-Prussian War. In the French Revolution, the Revolutionary commune, representing urban workers, tradespeople, and radical bourgeois, engineered
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). Under pressure from the commune, the Assembly suspended Louis XVI and ordered elections by universal manhood suffrage for a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. Mass arrests of royalist sympathizers were followed by the September massacres (Sept. 2–7), in which frenzied mobs entered jails throughout Paris and killed approximately 2,000 prisoners, many in grisly fashion.

The Republic

On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention held its first meeting. It immediately abolished the monarchy, set up the republic, and proceeded to try the king for treason. His conviction and execution (Jan., 1793) reinforced royalist resistance, notably in the VendéeVendée
, department (1990 pop. 509,356), W France, on the Bay of Biscay, in Poitou. The offshore islands of Noirmoutier and Yeu are included in the department. Largely an agricultural (dairying, cattle raising) and forested region, the Vendée has many beach resorts
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, and, abroad, contributed to the forming of a wider coalition against France. The Convention undertook the foreign wars with vigor but was itself torn by the power struggle between the Girondists and the MountainMountain, the,
in French history, the label applied to deputies sitting on the raised left benches in the National Convention during the French Revolution. Members of the faction, known as Montagnards [Mountain Men] saw themselves as the embodiment of national unity.
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 (Jacobins and extreme left). The Girondists were purged in June, 1793. A democratic constitution was approved by 1.8 million voters in a plebiscite, but it never came into force.

The Reign of Terror

Instead of a democracy the Convention established a war dictatorship operating through the Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, and numerous agencies such as the Revolutionary Tribunal. Known to history as the Reign of TerrorReign of Terror,
1793–94, period of the French Revolution characterized by a wave of executions of presumed enemies of the state. Directed by the Committee of Public Safety, the Revolutionary government's Terror was essentially a war dictatorship, instituted to rule the
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, this period represented the efforts of a few men to govern the country and wage war in a time of crisis. Georges DantonDanton, Georges Jacques
, 1759–94, French statesman, one of the leading figures of the French Revolution. A Parisian lawyer, he became a leader of the Cordeliers early in the Revolution and gained popular favor through his powerful oratory.
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 and Maximilien RobespierreRobespierre, Maximilien Marie Isidore
, 1758–94, one of the leading figures of the French Revolution. Early Life

A poor youth, he was enabled to study law in Paris through a scholarship.
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 dominated the new government, with Robespierre gradually gaining over Danton and others. Price and wage maximums were unevenly enforced, and acceptance of the inflated paper currency, the assignatsassignats
, paper currency issued during the French Revolution. To redeem the huge public debt and to counterbalance the growing deficit, the revolutionary constituent assembly issued (Dec.
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, was made mandatory. A huge number of suspects were arrested; thousands were executed, including Marie Antoinette. A revolutionary calendar, with 10-day weeks, was adopted.

The fanatic Jacques HébertHébert, Jacques René
, 1757–94, French journalist and revolutionary. An ardent supporter of the French Revolution, he gained the support of the working classes through his virulent paper Le Père Duchesne and was prominent in the Cordeliers.
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, who had introduced the worship of a goddess of Reason, was arrested and executed in Mar., 1794, along with other so-called ultrarevolutionaries. The next month Danton and his followers, the "Indulgents," who advocated relaxation of emergency measures, were executed. To counter Hébertist influence, Robespierre proclaimed (June, 1794) the cult of the Supreme Being. France's military successes lessened the need for strong domestic measures, but Robespierre called for new purges. Fearing that the Terror would be turned against them, members of the Convention arrested Robespierre on July 27, 1794 (see ThermidorThermidor
, 11th month of the French Revolutionary calendar. The coup of 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794) marked the downfall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror.
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), and had him guillotined; a majority of Commune members were also executed.

The Directory and the Coming of Napoleon

The Convention drew up a new constitution, setting up the DirectoryDirectory,
group of five men who held the executive power in France according to the constitution of the year III (1795) of the French Revolution. They were chosen by the new legislature, by the Council of Five Hundred and the Council of Ancients; each year one director, chosen
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 and a bicameral legislature. The constitution went into effect after the royalist insurrection of VendémiaireVendémiaire
, first month of the French Revolutionary calendar. 13 Vendémiaire of the year iv (Oct. 5, 1795) was the day when Napoleon Bonaparte, until then an obscure general, won fame by putting down a serious insurrection.
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 (Oct., 1795) had been put down by armed force. The rule of the Directory was marked by corruption, financial difficulties, political purges, and a fateful dependence on the army to maintain control. Conflict among the five directors led to the coup of 18 FructidorFructidor
, 12th month of the French Revolutionary calendar. The coup of 18 Fructidor (Sept. 4, 1797), in which General Augereau was a key figure, annulled the previous elections and removed Lazare Carnot and François de Barthélemy from the Directory.
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 (Sept. 4, 1797).

Discontent with Directory rule was increased by military reverses. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, the hero of the Italian campaign, returned from his Egyptian expedition and, with the support of the army and several government members, overthrew the Directory on 18 BrumaireBrumaire
, second month of the French Revolutionary calendar. The coup of 18 (actually 18–19) Brumaire (Nov. 9–10, 1799), engineered chiefly by Sieyès, overthrew the Directory and established the Consulate under Napoleon.
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 (Nov. 9) and established the ConsulateConsulate,
1799–1804, in French history, form of government established after the coup of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9–10, 1799), which ended the Directory. Three consuls were appointed to rule France—Napoleon Bonaparte (see Napoleon I), Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès,
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. Until the RestorationRestoration,
in French history, the period from 1814 to 1830. It began with the first abdication of Emperor Napoleon I and the return of the Bourbon king, Louis XVIII, but was interrupted (1815) by Napoleon's return (the Hundred Days).
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 of the Bourbons (1814), Napoleon (see Napoleon INapoleon I
, 1769–1821, emperor of the French, b. Ajaccio, Corsica, known as "the Little Corporal." Early Life

The son of Carlo and Letizia Bonaparte (or Buonaparte; see under Bonaparte, family), young Napoleon was sent (1779) to French military schools at
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) ruled France.

Effects of the Revolution

The French Revolution, though it seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified by 1815, had far-reaching results. In France the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code NapoléonCode Napoléon
or Code Civil
, first modern legal code of France, promulgated by Napoleon I in 1804. The work of J. J. Cambacérès and a commission of four appointed by Napoleon I in 1800 was important in making the final draft.
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. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare.

Although some historians view the Reign of Terror as an ominous precursor of modern totalitarianism, others argue that this ignores the vital role the Revolution played in establishing the precedents of such democratic institutions as elections, representative government, and constitutions. The failed attempts of the urban lower middle classes to secure economic and political gains foreshadowed the class conflicts of the 19th cent. While major historical interpretations of the French Revolution differ greatly, nearly all agree that it had an extraordinary influence on the making of the modern world.


See the older works by GuizotGuizot, François
, 1787–1874, French statesman and historian. The son of a Protestant family of Nîmes, he was educated at Geneva. He began a legal career in Paris in 1805, but soon took up literary work and later became a professor of modern history at the
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, Jules MicheletMichelet, Jules
, 1798–1874, French writer, the greatest historian of the romantic school. Born in Paris of poor parents, he visualized himself throughout his life as a champion of the people.
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, Alexis de TocquevilleTocqueville, Alexis de
, 1805–59, French politician and writer. A nobleman, he was prominent in politics, particularly just before and just after the Revolution of 1848 (see revolutions of 1848), and was minister of foreign affairs briefly in 1849.
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, Louis BlancBlanc, Louis
, 1811–82, French socialist politician and journalist and historian. In his noted Organisation du travail (1840, tr. Organization of Work,
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, Edgar QuinetQuinet, Edgar
, 1803–75, French historian. A romantic nationalist, he was much influenced by Johann Gottfried von Herder and was a close friend and associate of Jules Michelet.
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, and H. A. TaineTaine, Hippolyte Adolphe
, 1828–93, French critic and historian. A brilliant student, he gained recognition with the publication of his doctoral thesis, Essai sur les fables de La Fontaine (1853).
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; the great modern studies by Alphonse AulardAulard, Alphonse
, 1849–1928, French historian. He was the first professional historian of the French Revolution, and he devoted his life to this study. A professor at the Univ.
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, Albert MathiezMathiez, Albert
, 1874–1932, French historian, an authority on the French Revolution. He studied under Aulard, whose scientific method he adopted, although it led him to different conclusions.
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, and Georges LefebvreLefebvre, Georges
, 1874–1959, French historian, an authority on the French Revolutionary period. From 1937 to 1945 he held the chair of French Revolutionary history at the Sorbonne, and he founded the Institut d'histoire de la Révolution française.
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; the diplomatic history by Albert SorelSorel, Albert
, 1842–1906, French historian. After a diplomatic career that gave him unique access to the archives of the foreign ministry, Sorel concentrated on diplomatic history. His monumental Europe et la Révolution française (8 vol.
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; the socialist interpretation of Jean JaurèsJaurès, Jean
, 1859–1914, French Socialist leader and historian. A brilliant student and teacher, he entered the chamber of deputies in 1885 and subsequently became a Socialist.
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; P. Gaxotte, The French Revolution (1928), a royalist account.

See also J. M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1945); N. Hampson, A Social History of the French Revolution (1963); W. Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989); S. Schama, Citizens (1989); R. Cobb, The French and Their Revolution (1999); D. Andress, The Terror (2006); T. Tackett, The Coming of Terror in the French Revolution (2015).

On the historiography of the French Revolution, see P. Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins (1944, repr. 1963); D. Sutherland, France, 1789–1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (1986); and F. Furet and M. Ouzouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (tr. A. Goldhammer, 1989).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2013, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

French Revolution


(in Russian, Great French Revolution). A bourgeois democratic revolution in France (1789-94) that dealt a decisive blow to the system of feudal absolutism and paved the way for the development of capitalism.

The French Revolution was a natural result of a prolonged and constantly worsening crisis of the system of feudal absolutism, which had outlived itself; the crisis reflected the growing conflict between the old feudal productive relations and the new capitalist mode of production that had developed within the confines of the feudal system. This conflict found its expression in the deep and irreconcilable contradictions between the Third Estate, which represented the overwhelming majority of the population on the one hand, and the ruling privileged estates on the other hand. Despite the divergent class interests of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the urban plebeians (manufactory workers and urban poor) within the Third Estate, they were united in the common antifeudal struggle by their interest in destroying the feudal absolutist system. The leader of the struggle was the bourgeoisie, which was at that time a progressive and revolutionary class.

The basic contradictions that made the revolution inevitable were an exacerbation of the state bankruptcy that began in 1787 with a trade and industrial crisis and bad harvest years that led to famine. In 1788-89 a revolutionary situation emerged in the country. Peasant uprisings in which several French provinces were seized merged with plebeian demonstrations in the cities, such as Rennes, Grenoble, and Besançon in 1788, and the Paris suburb of Saint Antoine in 1789. The monarchy, which proved to be incapable of maintaining its position with its old methods, was compelled to make concessions: in 1787 the notables were convoked, and then the Estates General, which had not met since 1614, were convoked.

The session of the Estates General opened in Versailles on May 5, 1789. On June 17, 1789, a meeting of deputies of the Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly, and on July 9, the Constituent Assembly. The obvious preparation of the court to disband the Constituent Assembly (J. Necker’s resignation, the drawing up of troops, and so forth) immediately precipitated the mass uprising in Paris on July 13-14.

First stage of the revolution, July 14, 1789 to Aug. 10, 1792. On July 14 the rebellious people stormed the Bastille, the symbol of French absolutism. The storming of the Bastille was the first victory of the people and the beginning of the French Revolution. The king was forced to recognize the revolution, which spread to the whole country in the weeks that followed. In the cities, people swept away the old organs of power and replaced them with new bourgeois municipal organs. In Paris and the provincial cities the bourgeoisie created its own armed forces, the National Guard. At the same time, peasant uprisings and demonstrations of remarkable force took place in many provinces, especially Dauphine, Franche-Comté, and Alsace. The mighty peasant movement of the summer and fall of 1789 broadened and consolidated the victory of the revolution. The enormous revolutionary enthusiasm that seized the whole country in the initial period of the revolution, when the bourgeoisie boldly accepted an alliance with the people and all of the Third Estate acted in a united front against a system of feudal absolutism, found its reflection in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on Aug. 26, 1789.

However, the fruits of the revolution were not enjoyed by the whole Third Estate, and not even by the entire bourgeoisie, but only by the big bourgeoisie and the liberal nobility that followed its lead. Because of its dominant position in the Constituent Assembly, the municipalities, and the command of the National Guard, the big bourgeoisie and its party—the Constitutionalists, led by H. Mirabeau, M. J. La Fayette, and J. S. Bailly—became the dominant force in the country.

The first stage of the revolution was the period of the rule of the big bourgeoisie; legislation and all policies of the Constituent Assembly were dictated by its interests. To the extent that they coincided with the interests of the other part of the Third Estate—the democratic layers of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the plebeians—and contributed to the destruction of the feudal regime, they were progressive. Such were the decrees abolishing the division into estates; transferring church property so that it would be at the disposal of the state (Nov. 2, 1789); reforming the church and thereby placing the clergy under state control; abolishing the old medieval administrative division of France and dividing the country into departments, districts, cantons, and communes (1789-90); abolishing guilds (1791); and doing away with regulations and other limitations that were obstacles to the development of trade and industry. But on the main question of the revolution, namely the agrarian question- the big bourgeoisie stubbornly opposed the basic demand of the peasantry, the liquidation of feudal servitude. The Constituent Assembly’s adoption, under the pressure of peasant uprisings, of the decision of Aug. 4-11, 1789, on the agrarian question, abolishing some feudal privileges (such as the tithe and hunting rights), and the decision of Mar. 15, 1790, abolishing personal feudal services and partially abolishing triage left the basic feudal rights intact and did not satisfy the peasantry. The decrees of late 1789, which introduced qualifications in the electoral system and divided the citizenry into “active” and “passive” citizens, were inspired by the desire to strengthen the political rule of the big bourgeoisie and remove the popular masses from participation in political life. (The decrees were incorporated into the Constitution of 1791.) The class interests of the bourgeoisie also motivated the first antilabor law, the Le Chapelier law of June 14, 1791, which prohibited strikes and labor unions.

The antidemocratic policy of the big bourgeoisie, which split off from the other part of the Third Estate and became a conservative force, caused sharp dissatisfaction among the peasantry, the plebeian elements, and the democratic section of the bourgeoisie allied with them. Peasant demonstrations became more intense again in the spring of 1790. The popular masses in the cities became more active. The deteriorating food situation in Paris and the counterrevolutionary intentions of the partisans of the royal court prompted the people of Paris to march on Versailles on Oct. 5-6, 1789. The intervention of the people thwarted the counterrevolutionary plans and forced the Constituent Assembly and the king to move from Versailles to Paris.

Along with the Jacobin Club, there were other revolutionary democratic clubs that acquired an ever-greater influence over the masses, such as the Cordeliers’ Club and the Cercle Social, as well as such organs of revolutionary democracy as the newspaper L’Ami du peuple, published by J.-P. Marat. The consistent struggle in the Constituent Assembly of a small group of deputies headed by M. Robespierre against the antidemocratic policy of the majority met ever-greater sympathy in the country. Another expression of the sharpened class contradictions within the former Third Estate was the so-called Varennes crisis, an acute political crisis in June and July 1791 that arose in connection with an attempt of King Louis XVI to flee abroad. The July 17 firing on the Champ de Mars at Parisian demonstrators demanding the abdication of the king, which was done by order of the Constituent Assembly, signified the transformation of the big bourgeoisie from a conservative into a counterrevolutionary force. The division in the Jacobin Club, which had taken place the day before, on July 16, and the exodus of the constitutionalists into the Feuillants Club also revealed the open split that had occurred in the Third Estate.

The events in France had a great influence on revolutionizing the progressive social forces in other countries. At the same time, a counterrevolutionary bloc of European feudal monarchies and bourgeois and aristocratic circles in Great Britain began to consolidate itself against revolutionary France. In 1791 the European monarchies began to openly prepare for an intervention against the French revolution. The question of impending war became the main question in the political struggle in the Legislative Assembly that opened on Oct. 1, 1791, between groupings of Feuillants, Girondins, and Jacobins. On Apr. 20, 1792, France declared war on Austria. In the same year, Prussia and the kingdom of Sardinia declared war on revolutionary France, followed in 1793 by Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, the kingdom of Naples, the German states, and other countries. In this war, “revolutionary France was defending itself against reactionary monarchist Europe” (Lenin, Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 34, p. 196).

From the very beginning of the military actions the domestic counterrevolution closed ranks with the counterrevolution abroad. The betrayal of many of the generals of the French Army made it easier for the interventionists to invade France and then to march on Paris. The strong patriotic movement of the popular masses, which rose to the defense of the revolutionary fatherland, led to the creation of numerous volunteer units in a very short time. On July 11, 1792, the Legislative Assembly was forced to proclaim “the fatherland in danger.” At the same time, the popular anger turned against the interventionists’ secret allies—that is, the king and his henchmen. On Aug. 10, 1792, the movement against the monarchy turned into a forceful popular rebellion in Paris, headed by the Paris Commune, which was established during the night between August 9 and 10. The victorious rebellion swept away the monarchy, which had existed for about 1,000 years, and overthrew the big bourgeoisie, which was holding power at the time, and its party, the Feuillants, which had closed ranks with the feudal noble counterrevolution. This gave impetus to the further development and rise of the revolution.

Second stage of the revolution, Aug. 10, 1792 to June 2, 1793. The second stage of the revolution was marked by a bitter struggle between the Mountain Jacobins and the Girondins. The Girondins, led by J. P. Brissot, P. V. Vergniaud, and J. M. Roland, represented the trade, industrial, and landowning big bourgeoisie, primarily from the provinces, which had already profited to a certain extent from the revolution. Upon becoming the ruling party that replaced the Feuillants and taking conservative positions, the Girondins tried to stop the revolution and prevent its further development. The Jacobins, led by M. Robespierre, J.-P. Marat, G. J. Danton, and L. A. Saint Just, were not a homogeneous party. They represented a bloc of the middle and lower strata of the bourgeoisie, the peasantry, and the plebeian elements—that is, the class elements whose demands had not yet been satisfied, and who therefore sought to deepen and broaden the revolution.

This struggle, which assumed the form of a conflict between the Legislative Assembly, dominated by the Girondins, and the Paris Commune, in which the Jacobins played the leading role, was then transferred to the Convention. The latter, which had been elected according to a universal electoral law (for men), was convened on Sept. 20, 1792, the day of the victory of the French revolutionary troops over the interventionists at Valmy. At its first public meeting the Convention unanimously adopted a decision abolishing royal power (Sept. 21, 1792). A republic was established in France. Despite the resistance of the Girondins, the Jacobins insisted on placing the former king on trial before a court of the Convention and then, after finding him guilty, passing a death sentence. On Jan. 21, 1793, Louis XVI was executed.

The victory at Valmy stopped the offensive of the interventionists. On Nov. 6, 1792, a new victory was won at Jemappes, and on November 14 the revolutionary troops entered Brussels.

A drastic deterioration of the economic situation caused by the war, especially with respect to food, contributed to the intensification of the class struggle in the country. In 1793 the peasant movement became stronger again. In several departments, such as Eure, Gard, and Nord, the peasants arbitrarily divided communal lands. The demonstrations of the starving poor in the cities assumed especially sharp forms. The spokesmen for the interests of the plebeians, the Enragés, led by J. Roux, J. Varlet, and others, demanded the establishment of a maximum (fixed prices on consumer goods) and the curbing of speculators. Heeding the demands of the masses and mindful of the political situation, the Jacobins made an alliance with the Enragés. On May 4, the Convention, despite the resistance of the Girondins, decreed the establishment of fixed prices on grain. The persistent efforts of the Girondins to impose on the country their antipopular policy, the intensification of repressive measures against popular movements, the betrayal in March 1793 of General C. F. Dumouriez, who had had close ties with the Girondin leaders, and the almost simultaneous trial of Marat were testimony to the fact that the Girondins, like the Feuillants before them, were beginning to turn from a conservative into a counterrevolutionary force. The Girondins’ attempt to counterpose the provinces, where they were in a stronger position, to Paris, and their rapprochement with openly counterrevolutionary elements made the new popular uprising (May 31 to June 2, 1793) inevitable. The result of the rebellion was that the Girondins were driven out of the Convention, and power passed to the Jacobins.

Third stage of the revolution, June 2, 1793 to July 27-28, 1794. The third and highest stage of the revolution was the revolutionary democratic Jacobin dictatorship. The Jacobins assumed power at a critical time in the life of the republic. The troops of the interventionists were invading the country from the north, east, and south. Counterrevolutionary mutinies spread to the whole northwestern part of the country, as well as to the southern part. About two-thirds of the territory of France was in the hands of the enemies of the revolution. Only the revolutionary resolve and the boldness of the Jacobins, who unleashed the initiative of the popular masses and headed their struggle, saved the revolution and prepared for the victory of the republic. With the agrarian legislation of June and July 1793, the Jacobin Convention transferred communal and emigré lands to the peasants for distribution and completely destroyed all feudal rights and privileges. Thus, the main question of the revolution, the agrarian question, was solved on a democratic basis, and peasants who had lived in feudal dependency became free property-owners. This “suppression of obsolete feudalism in a really revolutionary way” (Lenin, ibid., p. 195) attracted the majority of the peasantry to the side of the Jacobin government and accounted for the peasantry’s active participation in the defense of the republic and its social gains.

On June 24, 1793, the Convention confirmed the replacement of the 1791 constitution, with its restricted voting rights, with a new, much more democratic constitution. However, the critical situation of the republic compelled the Jacobins to postpone putting the constitution into effect and instead replace it with a regime of revolutionary democratic dictatorship. Having taken form in the course of a bitter class struggle, the system of the Jacobin dictatorship combined a strong, firm, centralized power with a broad popular initiative from below. The Convention, the Committee of Public Safety (which became in fact the chief organ of the revolutionary government), and to some extent the Committee of General Security concentrated all the power in their hands. They relied on the revolutionary committees and “people’s societies” that were organized throughout the country. The revolutionary initiative of the masses was especially clearly revealed in the period of the Jacobin dictatorship. Thus, by popular demand, the Convention adopted, on Aug. 23, 1793, the historic decree on the mobilization of the whole French nation to drive its enemies beyond the borders of the republic. The actions of the plebeian masses of Paris on Sept. 4-5, 1793, which had been instigated by the Enragés, forced the Convention to put revolutionary terror on the agenda, broadening the repressive policy against the enemies of the revolution and against speculators. This it did in response to acts of the counterrevolution, such as the assassination of J.-P. Marat and the Lyon Jacobin leader J. Chalier. Under the pressure of the plebeian masses, the Convention adopted, on Sept. 29, 1793, the decree on introducing a general maximum. However, in addition to establishing a maximum on consumer goods, the Convention simultaneously applied it to workers’ wages. This was an especially graphic manifestation of the contradictory policy of the Jacobins. Another was the fact that, after having adopted several of the Enragés’ demands, the Jacobins smashed their movement by the beginning of September 1793.

The Jacobin revolutionary government brought about a turning point in the military situation as early as October 1793, through mobilizing the people for the struggle against foreign and internal counterrevolution, boldly utilizing the creative initiative of the people and the achievements of science to supply and arm the numerous armies of the republic (which had been created in an extremely short time), promoting brilliant military commanders from among the popular masses, and boldly applying a new military tactic. On June 26, 1794, the troops of the republic inflicted a decisive defeat on the interventionists at Fleurus.

In one year the Jacobin dictatorship solved the main tasks of the bourgeois revolution that had remained unsolved during the four preceding years. But there were deep internal contradictions in the Jacobin dictatorship itself and in the Jacobin bloc, which united heterogeneous class elements. As long as the outcome of the struggle against the counterrevolution remained uncertain and the feudal and monarchist restoration was still a real danger, these internal contradictions were muted. But as early as the beginning of 1794, an internal struggle broke out in the ranks of the Jacobin bloc. In March and April the Robespierre grouping, which led the revolutionary government, successively smashed the left Jacobins, who wanted a further deepening of the revolution, and the Dantonists, who represented the new bourgeoisie that had become rich during the revolution and wanted to weaken the revolutionary dictatorship. The so-called Ventose Decrees, which were adopted in February and March 1794 and which reflected the leveling aspirations of the Robespierrists, were not put into effect because of the opposition of the big property-owning elements in the government apparatus of the Jacobin dictatorship. Some of the plebeian elements and the village poor began turning away from the Jacobin dictatorship because a number of their social demands had not been satisfied. At the same time the greater part of the bourgeoisie, which no longer wanted to tolerate the restrictive regime and the plebeian methods of the Jacobin dictatorship, went over to a counterrevolutionary position, drawing with it the well-to-do peasantry, which was dissatisfied with the policy of requisitions, and, consequently, the middle peasantry. In the summer of 1794 a plot was conceived against the revolutionary government headed by Robespierre; this plot led to the counterrevolutionary coup d’etat of 9 Thermidor (July 27-28, 1794), which overthrew the Jacobin dictatorship and thus put an end to the revolution. The defeat of the Jacobin dictatorship was caused by the deepening of its internal contradictions and primarily by the fact that the main forces of the bourgeoisie and the peasantry turned against the Jacobin government.

The French Revolution was of enormous historical significance. Being by its very nature a popular bourgeois democratic revolution, it destroyed the feudal absolutist system more resolutely and more thoroughly than any of the earlier bourgeois revolutions, and thereby contributed to the development of capitalist relations, which were progressive in that period. The French Revolution laid the foundation for the strong revolutionary and democratic traditions of the French people and had a great and lasting influence on the subsequent history of not only France but many other countries as well (and influenced their ideology, art, and literature).


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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