In 1789, France had a social system call the ‘ancient regime’ or the old regime. There was very little equality in France. Everyone in France belonged to in of three classes – The First Estate (clergy), The Second Estate (nobles) or the Third Estate (Bourgeosie, town workers or peasants).
The First Estate was made up of the Clergy. They Church had great wealth, power and privilege. The church owned 10% of land and paid no taxes.
The Second Estate was made up of the Nobles. The nobles had top jobs in government, army, courts and the church. The nobles owned land but often had little money income, however, they did not pay taxes.
The Third Estate was 98% of the population. It was made up of the bourgeoisie, town workers and peasants. The Third Estate were required to pay taxes. Many were so poor, they turned to begging or crime just to feed their families. People were resentful over this.
There was also a lot of economic troubles in France. The government and King Louis XIV’s excessive spending meant that France was in debt. By 1789, most of the tax that was being paid by the Third Estate was used to pay interest on what it had borrowed. To solve the problem, the government would have to increase taxes. Again, this was a lot of pressure on the Third Estate.
In the late 1780s, bad harvests meant that a lot of crops didn’t grow. There was little food which increased prices. These high food prices brought hunger to poorer peasants and city dwellers, because they couldn’t afford food. This added to the peasants’ anger and they began to demand bread and food.
By 1788, the situation in France had worsened as they faced bankruptcy and bread riots spread. Louis XIV called the Estates General to meet at Versailles. Everyone wanted changes to be made and presented these to King Louis XIV. In May 1789 The Estates General met, but the votes of those from the Third Estate were seen as less important than those from other estates. Because of this, the Third Estate declared them to be the National Assembly. They wanted to write a constitution and members from the other estates joined them.
On July 14, 1789, more than 800 Parisians gathered outside the Bastille, a prison at the time. They demanded weapons believed to be stored there. The commander of the Bastille opened fire on the crowd. Many people were killed. This became a symbol of the revolution, known as Bastille Day.
‘The Great Fear’ was caused by rumors of nobles seizing peasant food. The peasants reacted to these rumours and attacked the homes of nobles. A number of revolutionary groups were fighting for power.
A radical group, known as the Jacobins or the Paris Commune, gained control of the royalist government of Paris
By August 4 of the same year, nobles in the National Assembly voted to end their privileges, meaning everyone was the same. The Declaration of Rights was released.
The National Assembly made many other reforms in France, for example they levied taxes, they put the church under control of the state, they limited the power of the monarchy, and made all males equal in the law.
In 1791, the Assembly completed the French Constitution. A new Legislative Assembly was created and had the power to make laws, collect taxes and decide on issues.
People outside of France heard what was happening. European rulers were afraid that the idea of a revolution would spread to their county. In 1791, the monarchs of Austria and Prussia issued the Declaration of Pilnitz, in which they threatened to intervene to protect the French monarchy, if the revolution continued. Revolutionaries in France took the threat seriously and prepared for war.
InOctober 1791, the Legislative Assembly took office, however, this only lasted a year. In Paris and other cities, working-class men and women, called sans-culottes, pushed the revolution into more radical action. By 1791, the sans culottes demanded a republic that was ruled by elected representatives. The Legislative Assembly supported the sans-culottes. In April 1792, there was a lot of tension between French Revolutionaries and European monarchs and the Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria, Prussia and Britain. The war began in 1792 until 1815.
On August 10, 1792, a crowd of Parisians stormed the Tuileries Palace and slaughtered the King’s guards. The Royal Family fled to the Legislative Assembly. With the support of the people, the Jacobins (radicals) took control of the assembly. They wanted anelection of a new legislative body called the National Convention. In September 1792, the convention that met was more radical than ever. The Jacobins controlled the Convention and set out to erase all traces of the ancient regime.
During the early months of the Republic, the Convention put Louis XVI on trial. In January 1793, King Louis XVI was executed. His wife, Marie Antoinette was executed that October. By 1793,France was at war with much of Europe. In the Vendee Region of Frances, royalists and priests led the peasants in rebellion against the government. The Convention was divided between Jacobins and Girondins (moderates).
The Convention created the Committee of Public safety to deal with threats. The 12 member committee had absolute power as it fought to save the revolution.The Committee prepared France for all out war and they issued ‘levee en masse’, meaning that all citizens had to contribute to the war. French armies over-ran the Netherlands and later invaded Italy.
The French government battled counter Revolutions, that were guided by Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre was leader of the Committee of Public Safety. He promoted religious toleration and wanted to abolish slavery. He hated the old regime of France. He wanted to achieve a ‘republic of virtue’ through terror.
The Reign of Terror began July 1793 until July 1794, and was led by Robespierre. Revolutionary courts conducted trials and around 40,000 people died. After a year, members of the Convention turned on the Committee of Public Safety. On July 27, 1794, Robespierre was arrested and executed the next day.
After the Reign of Terror, the revolution entered a third stage. Girondins (moderates) produced another constitution, the third since 1789. The constitution of 1795 set up a 5 man Directory and a two house legislature elected by male citizens. The directory held power from 1795 – 1799. They made peace with Prussia and Spain but not with Austria and Britain.
Women of all classes participated in the revolution from the very beginning. Many women were very disappointed when the Declaration of the Rights of Man did not grant equal citizenship to women.Women did gain some rights for a time. However, these did not last long after Napoleon gained power.
By 1799, the French Revolution had dramatically changed France. It had erased the old social order, overthrown the monarchy, and brought the Church under state control. The tricolor flag was created. This represented the French slogan liberty, equality and fraternity. Nationalism spread throughout France too.