French Revolution

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French Revolution
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The French Revolution is a period in the History of France, covering the years 1789-1799, in which the monarchy was overthrown and radical restructing was forced upon the Roman Catholic Church.

The Revolution: the Old Regime deposed

The King of France, Louis XVI was overthrown in a popular rebellion, caused in part by the rise of a middle class no longer controllable by the old regime, by ideological changes brought about by such authors as Voltaire, Denis Diderot, Turgot, and other theorists of the Enlightenment, and most proximately by the financial disarray of the government resulting in sharply higher taxes.

The Revolution: the causes

France was stricken by financial problems for over a century. The wars of Louis XIV caused debts who grew when wars were fought in the 18th century. These debts were not exceptional as Great Britain had the same debts. Why did these debts cause a bankruptcy in France but not in Great Britain? The cause laid in the tax system. In Britain everyone, clergy, nobles and citizens paid taxes. In France, where society was dominated by status, clergy and nobility were exempted from taxation. Because of this system government couldn't levy enough taxes to fill up the deficit. Citizens were upset because they were the thriving spirit of the nation. The nobles did nothing but were exempted. Peasants who had pieces of land just enough to feed themselves had the heaviest tax weight of all.

The second problem was food scarcity. Different crop failures in the 1780s caused these shortages, which of course led to high prices for bread. The peasants were double stricken by the economical and agricultural problems.

Under the reign of Louis XV and Louis XVI different ministers tried to tax the nobles. This measures encoutered much resistance from the parliaments (law courts), which were dominated by the nobility. When in 1788 all attempts were failed, the King decided to summon the Estates-General, the first since 1614, which would met in May 1789. The King tried to make the Estates meet in a modern way but the parliaments decided that the Estates-General would meet in the same way as it met in 1614: in different chambers for every class. But society had changed. The bourgoisie had grown in the last 200 years and were the persons who had the money. Now they had the chance to seize the power they wanted to have.

The history of the Revolution

Right from the beginning the Estates-General were divided about what to do. Instead of discussing the taxes of the king, they began to discuss the way in which decisions should be made. The Third Class wanted that the Estates would meet as one body and the voting would proceed per person, not per class. When the King doubtfully rejected, the members of the Third Class declared themselves the National Assembly, the true representatives of the people. They swore that they wouldn't break up until France had a new constitution.

Under the influence of conservative nobles the king decided to send troops to Versailles to disperse the Assembly. The people saw this as a provocation and the poor laborers of Paris attacked the Bastille.

The storming of the Bastille prison on July 14th, 1789, is commemorated today as Bastille Day. Although only seven prisoners were released -- four forgers, two lunatics, and a dangerous sexual offender -- it became a potent symbol of all that was hated of the ancien régime. After this violent act nobles fled the country.

In August the Assembly abolished feudalism and published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and in 1790 the church lands were confiscated and new paper money was introduced. The paper money caused high inflation. The King tried to flee in June 1791 to join the fled nobles, but his flight to Varennes did not succeed. He reluctantly accepted the new constitution in September 1791, which made France a constitutional monarchy. The king had to share power with the elected National Assembly.

New factions emerged such as the Feuillants (constitutional monarchists), Girondins (liberal republicans) and Jacobins (radical revolutionaries). The King, the Feuillants and the Girondins wanted to to wage war. The King wanted war to become popular or be defeated: both actions would make him stronger. The Girondins wanted to export the Revolution through Europe. War was waged on Austria (April 20, 1792) and on Prussia (a few weeks later). The fighting went badly and prices rose sky-high. In August 1792 a mob assaulted the Royal Palace in Paris and arrested the King. On September 21, 1792 monarchy was abolished and a republic declared. The French Revolutionary Calendar commenced.

The legislative power in the new republic was vested in the National Convention, while the executive power was vested in the Committee of Public Safety. The Girondins became the most influential party in the Convention and on the Committee.

On January 21, 1793 King Louis was executed with a Convention majority of 361 to 360 (only 1 vote!). The execution caused more wars with European countries.

When war went badly prices rose and the sans-culottes (poor laborers and radical Jacobins) rioted and counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This caused the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup. The Committee of Public Security came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre. The Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror. Thousands of innocent people found the death under the guillotine after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. In 1794 Robespierre had ultraradicals and moderate Jacobins executed, so eliminating popular support. On July 27, 1794 Robespierre was deposed by moderate Convention members and executed the next day.

In 1795 a new constitution was drafted, which installed the Directoire. The executive power was vested in five directors who were annually appointed by a bicameral parliament (500 representatives, 250 senators). The new regime met with opposition from remaining Jacobins and royalists. Riots and counter-revolutionary activities were supressed by the army. Through this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte gained much power.

On November 9, 1799 Napoleon staged a coup which led to his dictatorship and eventually to his proclamation as emperor, which brought the republican phase of the French Revolution to a close.

See also

bulletFrench Revolutionary Calendar
bulletTimeline of the French Revolution

Recommended reading:
bulletChronicle of the French Revolution - (1989) By Jean Favier, Director of the French Archives in Paris, France with Anik Blaise, Serge Cosseron, and Jacques Legrand in cooperation with more than 35 historians/authors


The French Revolutionary Calendar

The French Revolutionary Calendar (or Republican Calendar) was introduced in France on 24 November 1793 and abolished on 1 January 1806. It was used again briefly during the Paris Commune in 1871.

A year consists of 365 or 366 days, divided into 12 months of 30 days each, followed by 5 or 6 additional days. The months were:


1. Vendémiaire 7. Germinal
2. Brumaire 8. Floréal
3. Frimaire 9. Prairial
4. Nivôse 10. Messidor
5. Pluviôse 11. Thermidor
6. Ventôse 12. Fructidor

The year was not divided into weeks, instead each month was divided into three décades of 10 days, of which the final day was a day of rest. This was an attempt to de-Christianize the calendar, but it was an unpopular move, because now there were 9 work days between each day of rest, whereas the Gregorian Calendar had only 6 work days between each Sunday.

The ten days of each décade were called, respectively, Primidi, Duodi, Tridi, Quartidi, Quintidi, Sextidi, Septidi, Octidi, Nonidi, Decadi.

The 5 or 6 additional days followed the last day of Fructidor and were called:


1. Jour de la vertu (Virtue Day)
2. Jour du génie (Genius Day)
3. Jour du travail (Labour Day)
4. Jour de l'opinion (Reason Day)
5. Jour des récompenses (Rewards Day)
6. Jour de la révolution (Revolution Day) (the leap day)

Each year was supposed to start on autumnal equinox (around 22 September).

Years are counted since the establishment of the first French Republic on 22 September 1792. That day became 1 Vendemiaire of the year 1 of the Republic. (However, the Revolutionary Calendar was not introduced until 24 November 1793.)

The following table lists the Gregorian date on which each year of the Republic started:


Year 1: 22 Sep 1792 Year 8: 23 Sep 1799
Year 2: 22 Sep 1793 Year 9: 23 Sep 1800
Year 3: 22 Sep 1794 Year 10: 23 Sep 1801
Year 4: 23 Sep 1795 Year 11: 23 Sep 1802
Year 5: 22 Sep 1796 Year 12: 24 Sep 1803
Year 6: 22 Sep 1797 Year 13: 23 Sep 1804
Year 7: 22 Sep 1798 Year 14: 23 Sep 1805