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France was among the intellectually and economically advanced countries of Europe in 18th century. During the period between the death of Louis XVI and 1789, the boundaries of France had extended and the French trade had increased 500 times. In spite of affluence, France suffered from the evil of social inequality. The French Revolution was a revolt against monarchy, but aim of bringing about social equality was the underlying inspiration. This is why the French Revolution is regarded as the starting point of history of the Modern World.

The French society was divided into 3 social classes: the first estate, the second estate and the third, in the descending order the first estate consisted of higher order of priest and clergy. Nobles and landlords were included in the second estate. These two classes together accounted for only 4 percent of the French population. While rest 96% constituted the third estate. The first two estates usurped all political and economic power. They enjoyed political and economic privileges while a different set of laws were meant for the third estate.

Feudal France had become nation-state in the 18th century, which led to many changes in the military and administrative set up in France. France also had to face many wars in self-defense. The economy was, however, feudal. The priest and the nobles were exempt from payment of taxes but were paid by third estate. Although Louis XVI had curtailed political powers of the nobles, the economic and social privileges continued. Thus the common man had to suffer from forced labor, compulsory building of roads and payment of salt-tax and tithe (A tax at 1/10th of income to be paid to the church). The judicial system was also based on inequality and the codes of laws differed for every province.

The third estate engineered the French revolution. This estate included merchants, lawyers, doctors, teachers, craftsmen, farmers and peasants. These people were the real architects of France's prosperity. Food production for the country, intellectual and cultural glory of France largely depended on them. The French thinkers, especially Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau awakened the masses against the social injustice.

Montesquieu was born in a noble’s family and was a lawyer by profession. The comparative study of the British and French judiciary had driven him to the conclusion that the French system lacked the qualities of freedom, equality and impartiality of the British system, which was due to the shortcoming of concentration of all powers in the hands of French monarchs. He was of the view that the legislative, executive and judicial powers should be separated, which would guarantee freedom, equality and protection of life and property. His ideas influenced the intelligentsia in France. Voltaire was a well-known philosopher and a satirical writer of the 18th century. The social inequality, the higher order of the priests and the nobles attracted his critical pen. People found an expression to their feelings in his writings. Rousseau, the real inspiration for the French revolution, believed that man is born free but later he finds himself in all sorts of bondage. In the social, economic and political conditions prevailing in the 18th century France, these ideas of Rousseau proved to be conducive to the revolutionary spirit.

Louis XVI, a well wisher of his people but loathe to action, was crowned as the French monarch in 1774. He did his best to bring France out of the financial morass with the help of Turgot, Nicker and Colon, his finance ministers. They agreed that the revenue of France wouldn’t increase unless nobles were made to pay taxes. When he put the proposal to the nobles, nobles didn’t budge. Louis XVI was thus compelled to convene the Estates-General, a representative body of all the three classes in France. The Estates-General was being summoned after a lapse of nearly 175 years.

The member of the third estate suggested that representatives of the three estates should sit and vote together in view of serious financial crises; however the representatives of the first two estates opposed it also the King sided with the first two estates and turned down the proposal. The enraged third estate representatives assembled on a tennis court near the royal palace and declared themselves as ‘National Assembly’ and took a vow to remain united till people’s sovereignty was established. This was the beginning of an open confrontation between the feudalistic power and the common people in France. The king commanded his soldiers to drive out the representatives of the third estates but the soldiers refused to fire at them. This incident took place at Versailles, a suburb of Paris.

The rebellious spirit soon undertook even Paris. Mobs in Paris openly revolted against the king. On 14th July 1789 they stormed the prison of Bastille, captured bulk of ammunition from there and freed all the prisoners. To them, Bastille was a symbol of absolute monarchy, social inequality and injustice. The fall of Bastille, thus, became a symbol of liberty. 14th July is celebrated as Independence Day in France even today.

After this battle the leadership of the revolution changed hands from the representatives of the people to the mobs in Paris. The National Assembly tried to control the frenzy and the violence of the Parisian mobs. It proclaimed the declaration of the Human Rights. The 3 principles, liberty, equality and fraternity formed the basis of the French Constitution prepared by the National Assembly. This constitution came into effect on 14th September 1791. By its resolution of 4th August, 1789, the National Assembly had already abrogated feudalism in France. Louis XVI appealed to certain European monarchs for their help against his people. The king, the queen and the prince were apprehended while they were trying to escape from France in disguise and were imprisoned. France was declared to a republic on 22nd September 1792. The king tried for treason and was guillotined on 21st January 1793. This was the beginning of the ‘reign of terror’, the bloodiest phase in the history of the French Revolution. This continued for one and half years from 1793 to 1795. Robespierre beheaded thousands of innocent sympathizers merely on suspicion. People arrested Robespierre on 28th July 1794 and put him to death under the Guillotine. Napoleon Bonaparte, an intelligent, efficient and ambitious, general shortly thereafter crowned himself as emperor bringing the French republic to an end on 18th May 1804.

Apparently, it may seem that the French revolution failed in its objectives. The revolution ended absolute monarchy in France. Feudalism disappeared forever. The principles of republicanism took deep roots in France.

In the history of man, the French revolution will always be remembered as a successful revolt of the people. The principle of sovereignty of the people as enshrined in it has become the foundation of social life in the modern world. It has also permanently established the axiom that a despotic rule is unethical. The revolution has given the principles of liberty, equality, constitutionalism and democracy.