The French Revolution began in 1789 and ended in the late 1790s with the ascent of Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, French citizens redesigned their country’s political landscape, uprooting centuries-old institutions such as absolute monarchy and the feudal system. The Revolution was influenced by Enlightenment ideals, particularly the concepts of popular sovereignty and inalienable rights (including the inherent will of the people). During the French Revolution, 17,000 people were tried and executed and an unknown number of others died in prison or without trial.
As the 18th century drew to a close, France’s costly involvement in the American Revolution and extravagant spending by King Louis XVI (1754-1793) and his predecessor had left the country on the brink of bankruptcy. Not only were the royal coffers depleted, but two decades of poor cereal harvests, drought, cattle disease and skyrocketing bread prices had kindled unrest among peasants and the urban poor. Many expressed their desperation and resentment toward a regime that imposed heavy taxes yet failed to provide relief by rioting, looting and striking.
France’s population had changed considerably since 1614. The non-aristocratic members of the Third Estate now represented 98 percent of the people but could still be outvoted by the other two bodies. The Third Estate began to mobilize support for equal representation and the abolishment of the noble veto–in other words, they wanted voting by head and not by status. A popular insurgency culminated on July 14 when rioters stormed the Bastille fortress in an attempt to secure gunpowder and weapons; many consider this event, now commemorated in France as a national holiday, as the start of the French Revolution. The wave of revolutionary fervor and widespread hysteria quickly swept the countryside. Revolting against years of exploitation, peasants looted and burned the homes of tax collectors, landlords and the seigniorial elite.
On August 4, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (“Déclaration des droits de l’homme et du citoyen”), a statement of democratic principles grounded in the philosophical and political ideas of Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). The document proclaimed the Assembly’s commitment to replace the ancien régime with a system based on equal opportunity, freedom of speech, popular sovereignty and representative government.
On the domestic front, meanwhile, the political crisis took a radical turn when a group of insurgents led by the extremist Jacobins attacked the royal residence in Paris and arrested the king on August 10, 1792. The following month, amid a wave of violence in which Parisian insurrectionists massacred hundreds of accused counterrevolutionaries, the Legislative Assembly was replaced by the National Convention, which proclaimed the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the French republic. On January 21, 1793, it sent King Louis XVI, condemned to death for high treason and crimes against the state, to the guillotine; his wife Marie-Antoinette (1755-1793) suffered the same fate nine months later.
On August 22, 1795, the National Convention, composed largely of Girondins who had survived the Reign of Terror, approved a new constitution that created France’s first bicameral legislature. Executive power would lie in the hands of a five-member Directory (“Directoire”) appointed by parliament. Royalists and Jacobins protested the new regime but were swiftly silenced by the army, now led by a young and successful general named Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821).
The Directory’s four years in power were riddled with financial crises, popular discontent, inefficiency and, above all, political corruption. By the late 1790s, the directors relied almost entirely on the military to maintain their authority and had ceded much of their power to the generals in the field. On November 9, 1799, as frustration with their leadership reached a fever pitch, Bonaparte staged a coup d’état, abolishing the Directory and appointing himself France’s “first consul.” The event marked the end of the French Revolution and the beginning of the Napoleonic era, in which France would come to dominate much of continental Europe.
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