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The French Revolution


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The French Revolution traces the long and short term causes of the French Revolution to the October Days and its consequences up to the dissolution of the Convention and beyond. Integrating recent historiography as well as a broad range of text and visual primary sources, this text is an engaging, clear and concise analysis of the French Revolution.
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ISBN: 978-0170243995
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Nelson Cengage has developed this series
for Australian senior secondary students of
Modern History. The series includes titles
that encompass the period from the 18th
century to the contemporary world and
they explore the social, cultural and political
developments that shape the 21st century.
Written by experienced educators and
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a narrative framework to incorporate recent
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These key features combine to support the
development of historical knowledge and
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enable students to interpret and reect on
the experience and developments that have
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A Globalised World
Age of Imperialism
Australia 1918–1950s
China and Revolution
Civil Rights in the United States of America
Germany 1918–1945
Recognition and Rights of Indigenous Peoples
Russia and the Soviet Union
The Changing World Order
The Enlightenment
The French Revolution
The Industrial Revolution
The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East
United States of America 1900–1945
Women’s Movements
The French Revolution
The Phrygian, or liberty, cap is a soft, red, conical cap worn with the top pulled
forward. It was worn in antiquity by the inhabitants of Phrygia, a region of central
Anatolia. The cap had been worn by freed slaves in ancient Greece and Rome as a
symbol of their freedom. During the French Revolution, along with other symbols
adopted from antiquity, the cap came to represent freedom and the pursuit of liberty
in sculpture, paintings and caricatures and was worn by sans-culottes and soldiers
of the revolutionary army. On 20 June 1792, when sans-culottes attacked the Tuileries
Palace, Louis XVI donned the cap to demonstrate he was one of the people. To this
day, the national emblem of France, Marianne, is shown wearing a Phrygian cap.
Louis XVI
King of France from 1774, Louis XVI summoned
the Estates-General in 1789 to reform his
kingdom. The revolution that followed led to his
overthrow in 1792 and execution in 1793.
french_sb_43995_cvr_gatefold_1pp.indd 1-4 18/08/2015 9:28 am
Ignorance and disregard
for the rights of man
are the sole causes of
public misfortunes
and of the corruption
of governments.
Declaration of the Rights of
Man and the Citizen, 1789
Australia • Brazil • Japan • Korea • Mexico • Singapore • Spain • United Kingdom • United States
The French Revolution
1st Edition
Darius von Güttner
Publishing editor: Michael Spurr
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National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication Data
Güttner, Darius von, author.
The French revolution / Darius von Güttner ; Tony Taylor (series editor).
9780170243995 (paperback)
Nelson modern history.
Includes index.
For secondary school age.
France--History--Revolution, 1789-1799--Textbooks.
France--Politics and government--18th century.
Taylor, Tony, 1943
Cengage Learning Australia
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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 19 18 17 16 15
001 Introduction
The origins of the revolution
The revolution of 1789
The reform and restructuring of
France, 1789–92
The republic and beyond
The Terror and the Thermidorian
232 Conclusion
About the series iv
Series editor acknowledgements vi
Author acknowledgements vii
Index 244
American War
of Independence
3 May
The Parlement of Paris proclaimed
the Fundamental Laws of the
Kingdoms, stating that new taxes
can only by imposed by agreement
with the Estates-General
8 August
The king announced the convocation
of the Estates-General for May 1789
25 September
The Parlement of Paris demanded
that the Estates-General meet
according to the forms of 1614 and
vote by order
27 December
The king concedes to doubling
the number of deputies for the
Third Estate
Fiscal reform proposal
and Assembly of Notables
Louis XVI
ascended the
5 April
Danton and Desmoulins tried
and executed
8 June
Festival of the Supreme Being
27–28 July
Robespierre arrested, guillotined
without trial (9–10 Thermidor)
12 November
Paris Jacobin Club closed
The Enlightenment
24 December
Constitution of the
Year VIII – leadership of
Napoleon established
under the Consulate
22 August
1795 Constitution ratied
– bicameral legislature,
executive Directory of ve
9–10 November
Bonaparte’s Brumaire
coup d’etat
1700 1780
19 February
Jacques Necker, Director-
General of Finances,
presented his nancial
report to King Louis XVI
Publication of Sieyès’ What is the
Third Estate?
Election of deputies to the Estates-
General at Versailles; drafting of
cahiers de doléances
5 May
The Estates-General meet for the
rst time since 1614
17 June
The Third Estate declared itself to
be the National Assembly
20 June
Tennis Court Oath pledged by
members of the Third Estate
14 July
Storming of the Bastille
11 August
The National Assembly abolishes
the last vestiges of feudalism
26 August
The Assembly adopted the Declaration
of the Rights of Man and the Citizen
20 April
Declaration of war on Austria
10 August
Storming of the Tuileries
Palace; Louis XVI deposed and
taken into custody
2–6 September
The September Massacres of
prisoners in the Paris prisons
22 September
National Convention declares
France a republic
12 July
The Civil Constitution
of the Clergy
Clockwise from top left: Bridgeman Images/Château de
Versailles, France; Bridgeman Images; Alamy/The Art Archive;
Alamy/Stocktrek Images; Alamy/Classic Image; Bridgeman
Images; Alamy/Prisma Archivo; Alamy/Lanmas
21 January
Citizen Louis Capet, formerly
known as Louis XVI, guillotined
Outbreak of rebellion against
the revolution; war in the Vendée
6 April
Committee of Public Safety
5 September
Start of the ‘Reign of Terror’ with
the Convention’s proclamation
of revolutionary government
until peace
4 December
Law of 14 Frimaire II passed
20–25 June
Royal family’s ight to
Varennes and forced
return to Paris
14 September
Louis XVI accepted the
new Constitution
Professor Tony Taylor
Tony is the past Director of the National Inquiry
into the Teaching and Learning of History and
the National Centre for History Education.
From 2006 to 2010 he was a senior consultant
to federal government bodies responsible for the
development of Australian Curriculum History,
while researching and publishing extensively
in various topics in education and History. As
series editor, Tony played a pivotal role in the
development of the Nelson Modern History
series. He is author of The Industrial Revolution
and co-author of The Changing World Order.
Dr Michael Adcock
Michael is a cultural historian and is currently
Head of Humanities at Melbourne Grammar
School. He is a generous supporter of many
teachers and students of Revolutions in Victoria,
having presented at countless conferences and
contributed to numerous junior and secondary
textbooks. He is author of The Enlightenment.
Professor Ian J Bickerton
Ian has been a member of the School of History
at the University of New South Wales for more
than 35 years and has published and researched
extensively on the Arab–Israeli conflict and the
Middle East. Ian is author of The Struggle for
Peace in the Middle East.
Professor Ian Copland
Ian has written extensively on modern India and
Pakistan, Indian religious history and comparative
colonialism and lectured in History at Monash
University for more than 30 years. He is a
foundation member of the South Asian Studies
Association, and a fellow of the Australian
Academy of the Humanities. Ian is the author
of India.
Maryellen Galbally
Maryellen Galbally has taught History at both
secondary and tertiary levels and has worked
extensively as a curriculum advisor in Victoria and
New South Wales. She has developed numerous
history teaching and learning resources, including
Imagining Australia, and has presented at many
teacher conferences. Maryellen is the author of
Women’s Movements.
Chris Gates
Chris has taught in Australia, the UK and New
Zealand and is currently Head of History at
Ivanhoe Girls’ Grammar School, Melbourne.
Chris has presented at many teacher conferences
and student lectures and was a member of the
Nelson Connect with History author team. He is a
co-author of China and Revolution.
Sue Gordon
In addition to teaching senior Australian and
Koori History in Victoria for many years, Sue has
been actively involved in curriculum development
and assessment of VCE History. Sue currently
teaches at RMIT University. She is a co-author
of Imagining Australia, and is the author of
Recognition and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Dr Darius von Güttner
Darius is a Research Fellow, School of
Historical and Philosophical Studies, at the
University of Melbourne. He has taught in
the History and Education programs at La
Trobe University and teaches Revolutions and
Twentieth Century History at Goulburn Valley
Grammar School, Victoria. Darius is the author
of The French Revolution.
Brad Kelly
Brad is Director of Secondary at Cedars
Christian College, Illawarra. A former journalist,
he has taught in Australia and England, has
presented at numerous history conferences and
student lectures and indulges his passion for
history by leading student tours to Europe. Brad
is the author of A Globalised World and co-author
of The Changing World Order.
K J Mason
James taught in New South Wales and
Queensland for more than 40 years and has
written numerous history textbooks, most notably
Experience of Nationhood and Republic to Reich. In
2006 James was awarded an OAM in the General
Division for services to secondary education and
in particular the teaching and writing of history.
James is the author of Germany 1918–1945.
Dr Sarah Mirams
Sarah has taught history in secondary and
tertiary settings, worked as an education
ocer for cultural and heritage institutions,
and has contributed to numerous textbooks
for secondary students. She now works as an
independent historian. Sarah is the author of
Civil Rights in the United States of America,
Australia 1918-1950s and United States of
America 1900–1945.
Elizabeth Morgan
Elizabeth currently teaches English and History
at Nossal High School, Berwick, Victoria. With
more than 30 years of teaching experience,
and having taught VCE Revolutions for more
than 15 years, she is a passionate educator who
regularly presents at conferences and student
lectures. She has contributed to many published
resources, including China and Revolution.
Merredith Southee
Merredith has taught History in Western
Australian government and private schools and
also developed teaching and learning resources
for the Department of Education, the Maritime
Museum, Fremantle, and the National Trust of
Australia. She currently lectures in the UWA
Graduate School of Education and is the co-
author of Australia 1918–1950s.
Ken Webb
With extensive experience in government and
independent schools as a teacher of Ancient,
Modern and IB History, Ken is a regular
presenter of student lectures and teaches
professional learning workshops. He is the author
of Age of Imperialism and Russia and the Soviet
Union and a host of other senior history titles.
Ashley Wood
Ashley has taught History for ten years and is
currently Head of Humanities at St Leonard’s
College in Brighton, Victoria. He is also President
of the History Teachers’ Association of Victoria.
He has contributed to a wide variety of journals
and junior history textbooks and is the author of
Decolonisation and co-author of The Changing
World Order.
The author team of the Nelson Modern History series combines the collective experience of some of
Australia’s nest educators, teachers, historians, academics and curriculum experts. Cengage gratefully
acknowledges the contribution of the authors and the many teachers, historians and academics who
contributed to the development of the series.
The French revoluTion
Chapter 2
The revolution of 1789
Chapter two
In this chapter we will examine the events that followed the refusal of the privileged
orders to approve reform of France’s scal system and the king’s decision to summon
the Estates-General to a meeting with the expectation of enacting the proposed reforms.
When the Estates-General, representing the three estates of the realm, met in Versailles,
their delegates hoped to address more than just the king’s reform package and brought
with them their cahiers de doléances, or books of grievances, which voters had drawn up in
the assemblies that had elected the deputies. The cahiers called for a range of reforms and
the drawing up of the lists had created an expectation that the issues would be addressed
in Versailles. In addition to these hopes, the issue of how voting was to be conducted at
the meeting excited the public. An inuential pamphlet entitled What Is the Third Estate?,
written by Abbé Sieyès, a priest who was a deputy of the Third Estate, offered a range of
radical solutions. In June 1789, these solutions were adopted by the Third Estate, which
claimed political power by declaring itself the National Assembly. The emancipation of the
Third Estate was completed when, on 20 June, locked out of their meeting place, its deputies
swore an oath not to rest until France had a constitution – the oath passed into the annals
of history as the Tennis Court Oath. A combination of rumour
and radical agitation in response to the king moving troops close
to Paris, and fear of the dissolution of the National Assembly,
sparked an outburst of violence against the monarchy. When, on
14 July, a crowd of thousands of Parisians captured the old royal
prison, the Bastille, the monarchy’s authority vanished. It became
the signal for a peasant uprising in the provinces and gave the
National Assembly an incentive to proclaim the abolition of the
remnants of feudalism. The new society was heralded with the
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, proclaiming the
‘sacred’ rights of man. The king’s refusal to accept the declaration
inspired the Parisian crowd to take action again. There was no
turning back to absolute monarchy.
The caption on this 1789 engraving translates to ‘Long Live the King, Long Live the
Nation. I knew quite well that sooner or later it would be our turn’.
The revolution
of 1789
+What factors contributed to the
revolution in the short term?
+What were the key factors that
enabled the Third Estate to declare
itself the National Assembly?
+How did ordinary French people
save the revolution?
+What brought about the end of
the ancien régime ?
InquIry questIons
Using The French Revolution
The French Revolution has been developed especially for senior secondary students of History and is part of the Nelson Modern
History series. Each book in the series is based on the understanding that History is an interpretive study of the past by which
you also come to better appreciate the making of the modern world.
Developing understandings of the past and present in senior History extends on the skills you learnt in earlier years.
As senior students you will use historical skills, including research, evaluation, synthesis, analysis and communication, and
the historical concepts, such as evidence, continuity and change, cause and effect, signicance, empathy, perspectives and
contestability, to understand and interpret societies from the past. The activities and tasks in The French Revolution have been
written to ensure that you develop the skills and attributes you need in senior History subjects.
about the
The republic and beyond
Chapter 4
Jacques-Pierre Brissot (1754–1793)
Brissot was a leading member of the Girondist faction
during the French Revolution. He was a supporter of the
declaration of war with Austria (1792), but argued against
the direct democracy advocated by radical Jacobins and
the sans-culottes, and called for the maintenance of the
constitutional monarchy established by the Constitution of
1791. In June 1793, Brissot and other Girondin deputies in
the National Convention were arrested by the Convention
under threat from the sans-culottes. They were charged with
espionage and counter-revolution and sentenced to death
by guillotine on 31 October.
The need for war – opposing views
Robespierre on war, December 1791
It seems that those who desired to provoke war adopted this view only because they did not pay sucient
attention to the nature of the war ... and to the circumstances in which we today find ourselves … [W]hat
kind of war can threaten us; will this be a war of one nation against other nations? Will it be a war of a
king against other kings? No, it will be a war of all the enemies of the French Constitution against the
French Revolution. These enemies, who are they? They are of two kinds: the enemies within and the
enemies without. [These] external enemies, the French rebels, and those who could be counted among
their supporters, claim that they are only the defenders of the court of France and of the French nobility …
Can we fear to find the internal enemies of the French Revolution, and to find among these enemies the
court and the agents of the executive power? If you reply in the armative, I shall say to you: To whom will
you entrust the conduct of this war? To the agents of the executive power? By this act you will abandon the
security of the empire to those who wish to destroy you. It follows from all this that what we have most to
fear is war … War gives opportunity for terror, danger, retaliation, treason and finally loss. The people grow
weary. Is it necessary, they will say, to sacrifice the public treasury for empty titles? ... The parties come
together; they slander the National Assembly, ... they blame it for the misfortunes of the war.
Le Journal des débats des Amis de la Constitution (Journal of the
debates of Friends of the Constitution), 13–14 December 1791.
Brissot on war, December 1791
The question under discussion is to know whether we should attack the German princes, who support the
émigrés, or whether we should await their invasion … It is by force of reason and fact that I am persuaded
that a people that has conquered liberty after ten centuries of slavery has need of war. It needs war to
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The inequity of taxation
This contemporary engraving oers a striking illustration of the injustice of the ancien régime based on the
inequalities in political, social and economic standing of the estates. The privileged estates (identifiable by their
form of dress) are depicted standing on top of the rock bearing the names of taxes paid almost exclusively by the
Third Estate.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
sOurCe 1.13 This contemporary image depicts the crushing inequity of the ancien régime in France – the scal privilege.
1 Identify the three figures in the cartoon. How are they represented?
2 Describe the background to the scene and explain its significance.
3 The words written on the rock are those of taxes: Taille, Impôts, Corvées. Explain what each of these taxes was for.
4 What message does this image convey about the burden of taxation in pre-revolutionary France?
5 Symbols, such as clothing, are frequently used in illustrations to convey meaning. Recognising and
understanding these symbols will enable you to analyse and interpret the meaning of other visual sources.
Create a table summarising the symbols used in Sources 1.09, 1.10 and 1.13. As you work through your study
of the French Revolution you will encounter many new symbols, such as the cockade and the revolutionary
bonnet. Add any new symbol and a description of its meaning to your table.
Key figures and
organisations, Key
terms and ConCepts,
Key doCuments
feature brief biographies, profiles,
definitions and summaries of key
documents as a ready reference for
learning and revision.
illustrated timeline
is a bird’s-eye view of the topic
and summarises the major
developments of the period.
Chapter introduCtions
provide a context to the issues that are addressed.
are listed at
the start of the
chapter. These
questions provide
a focus for you
as you read each
signifiCant indiViduals
are biographical profiles and
assessments of key historical
figures and frequently include
questions and activities.
sourCe studies
of visual and text primary sources and
secondary literature appear frequently through
the text and are combined with questions
and activities to aid your evaluation and
interpretation of evidence from the past.
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Louis XIV – the Sun King
The reign of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV
(1643–1715), is one of the longest in European
history. For more than 50 years, Louis had
personally ruled France, providing the rest of
Europe with an example of an absolutist style
of government. His reign marked the growth
of France as one of the great powers of the
Continent. Louis reformed the administration
of justice and promoted commerce and industry,
including the development of overseas colonies.
As king, he established royal academies for
architecture, art, literature, science and music,
and built the royal palaces of the Louvre, now
an art gallery, and Versailles, where he based
the French court. Louis XIV outlived all of
his immediate family with the exception of
his grandson, Philip V of Spain, and a great-
grandson, who became Louis XV when the Sun King died in 1715. The name of
Louis XIV became synonymous with greatness, power, splendour and glory.
Alamy/liszt collection
sOurCe 1.3 Louis XIV, France’s Sun King
The Bourbon dynasty
The Bourbon dynasty, which ruled France at the
time of the revolution, is one of the most ancient
European royal houses. It is a branch of the dynasty
founded in 987 by Hugh Capet (c. 941–996), who
was elected ‘King of the Franks’ after the death
Louis V, the last king of the Carolingian dynasty.
In 1328, when direct descendants of Hugh Capet
did not produce a surviving male heir to the French
throne, the succession passed to their cousin, the
head of the younger branch of the House of Capet,
the Valois dynasty. Similarly, in 1589, the Valois died
out and the throne passed to Henry IV (1553–1610),
the rst French monarch of the Bourbon dynasty.
When, in 1792, King Louis XVI was deposed, the
government of the French Republic decided that
the former king and his family would be referred to
by the family name of their ancient ancestor Hugh
Capet, and thus Louis became Louis Capet.
sOurCe 1.2 The coat of arms of France
The French revoluTion
Peter McPhee commented on the context of the operation of the Law of Suspects:
Paris … was the pulsating, tumultuous centre of the Revolution, where huge
numbers of civilians and soldiers on the move coexisted uneasily with long-
established neighbourhood communities. The chaos of a city at the heart of the
Revolution was barely contained by vigorous policing. In such a situation the news
spread by 1,000 newspaper street-sellers was embellished by word of mouth,
creating a city crackling with a potent mixture of rumour, optimism, and suspicion.
The Law of Suspects was designed to quell such insecurity; in its implementation,
sections, and their thousands of police, drawn from fortnightly service by all able-
bodied men, played the grass-roots role. Lies, personal feuds, and denunciations
found a fertile atmosphere, yet the activities of section authorities were self-
consciously legal and ‘correct’.
Peter McPhee, The French Revolution, 1789–1799, Oxford University Press,
Oxford England; New York, 2002, p. 125.
1 What is McPhee’s main
2 What was in his opinion
the aim of the Law of
1 Those who
by their conduct,
associations, talk or writing
have shown themselves to
be supporters of tyranny
or federalism and
enemies of liberty
2 Those who are
unable to justify their
means of existence and
the performance of their
civic duties
3 Those who have been
refused certificates of
revolutionary patriotism
4 Public ocials who
have been suspended or
dismissed from their
positions by the National
5 Former nobles
and their families or
agents of the émigrés who
have not steadfastly shown
their devotion to the
6 Those who have
emigrated as a result of
the revolution even though
they may have returned
to France
SOURCE 5.25 According to the Law of Suspects these individuals were considered to be threats to the revolution.
The French
Getty Images/DeAgostini
The revolution of 1789
Chapter 2
Chapter summary
+The bankruptcy of the Crown speeded the king’s decision to issue the convocation of the
+The Parlement of Paris set the procedure for the meeting of the Estates-General.
+Abbé Sieyès published his provocatively titled pamphlet What Is the Third Estate?
+The cahiers de doléances demanded changes but fell short of revolutionary demands.
+The opening ceremony of the Estates-General deliberately reinforced the social disparity
between the estates.
+The stalemate over the voting procedures resulted in the declaration by the deputies of the
Third Estate that they represented the whole nation.
+The Tennis Court Oath challenged the king’s authority. The king capitulated in the face of
the strong demands of the Third Estate.
+Jacques Necker’s dismissal caused anti-royalist agitation in Paris and resulted in the
storming of the Bastille.
+With the news of the fall of the Bastille the social order of the ancien régime disintegrated
with the wave of peasant insurrections known as the ‘Great Fear’.
+During the night of 4 August 1789, the Assembly abolished the feudal system in France. The
Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen announced the principles of the new society.
+The king’s reluctance to endorse the August Decrees, and the Declaration of Rights incited
Parisian market women to march to Versailles and forcibly bring the royal family to Paris,
making them virtual prisoners of the revolution.
1 Young, Arthur, Travels during the years 1787, 1788, and 1789. Undertaken more particularly with a view of
ascertaining the Cultivation, Wealth, Resources, and National Prosperity of the Kingdom of France, Bury St. Edmunds,
J Rackham, London, 1792, p. 123.
2 William Doyle, The Oxford History of the French Revolution, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, p. 97.
3 Peter McPhee, The French Revolution, 1789–1799, Oxford University Press, Oxford England; New York, 2002, p. 51.
4 Georges Lefebvre, The French Revolution, Routledge & Kegan Paul; Columbia University Press, London; New
York, 1962, p. 118.
5 William Doyle, 2002, p. 111.
6 Peter McPhee, 2002, p. 62
7 Peter McPhee, 2002, p. 62.
8 Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Penguin, London, 1989, p. 859.
9 Michael Fitzsimmons, ‘The Principles of 1789’, in Peter McPhee, A Companion to the French Revolution, Wiley-
Blackwell companions to European history, Chichester, West Sussex, UK; Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, Mass.,
2013, p. 84.
10 François Furet and Mona Ozouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1989, p. 112.
11 François Furet and Mona Ozouf, 1989, p. xiii.
The French revoluTion
12 Robert Darnton, What was revolutionary about the French Revolution? Charles Edmonson historical lectures 11th, Baylor
University Press, Waco, Texas, Markham Press Fund, 1990, p. 5.
13 Michael Fitzsimmons, 2013, p. 87.
14 François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990, pp. 45–6.
Weblinks relevant to this chapter can be found at
Further resources
Peter Burley, ‘A Bankrupt Regime’, History Today, January 1984, pp. 36–42.
Peter McPhee, Chapter 3, ‘The Revolution of 1789’, The French Revolution, 1789–1799, Oxford
University Press, Oxford, 2002.
Albert Soboul, The French Revolution, 1787–1799, From the Storming of the Bastille to Napoleon,
Vintage, New York, 1975, pp. 42–55.
Chapter review activities
1 What was the role of the Estates-General?
2 When was the last time the Estates-General were summoned before 1789?
3 How did the views of society differ between the nobles and the peasants in France in 1789?
4 What was the key demand of the Third Estate when Louis XVI called the meeting of the
Estates-General in 1789?
5 On what grounds did the Third Estate proclaim itself the National Assembly?
6 What were the cahiers de doléances and what did they suggest about the concerns of the
French people on the eve of the revolution?
7 What was the impact of the failure of French harvests in the late 1780s on the economy and
on the lives of ordinary people?
8 Who was Abbé Sieyès and what contribution did he make to the development of the
revolution, both in ideological and practical terms?
9 Explain how issues of procedure and voting created divisions within the Estates-General
when it met in May 1789.
10 Why did the National Assembly form in June 1789?
11 What were the context, reasons and outcomes of the sacking of Jacques Necker on
11 July 1789?
12 Why has the storming of the Bastille become the best-known event of the French Revolution?
What were the outcomes of this event, in both real and symbolic terms?
The image on the facing page, painted by Jeanne-Louise (Nanine) Vallain in 1793 or 1794,
used to hang in the meeting hall of the Jacobin Club in Paris. It is easily recognisable as a
personication of Liberty or Republic, who is represented as a solemn, seated woman, wearing
clothing associated with ancient Rome and holding a pike or staff topped with a red Phrygian
cap or bonnet of liberty (an allusion to the cap worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome) in her
left hand; in her right hand, she holds an unrolled scroll, which reveals the
Declaration of the
Rights of Man and the Citizen
. A bound bundle of wooden rods, the fasces, lie just behind the
scroll. These are usually bound around the pike to symbolise the administration of justice.
Perhaps it is signicant that Liberty, or the Republic, is strong enough to hold the pike alone
in her hand, like her British counterpart Britannia, who holds the trident. At her bare feet lie
symbols of vanquished monarchy, broken chains, the inverted crown of a deposed monarch
and the mutilated feudal registers of seigneurial dues.
Like so much art of the period, this is an allegorical image, personalising freedom, fairness,
law and order. It certainly neatly summarises the achievements of the revolution and may well
have struck a chord in post-Robespierre France as the revolution entered the period of the
Directory, the longest period of a continuous revolutionary government. This chapter of history
was closed on 9 November 1799 when Napoleon Bonaparte took charge as the First Consul.
When, in 1804, Napoleon decided to abandon the republican façade and crowned himself
Emperor, the revolution, arguably, was truly over.
The outcomes of the revolution
With the enactment of the Constitution of 1795, the leaders of the Republic were hoping that
their country would enter a period of stabilisation and prosperity. Louis XVI’s brother was
proclaimed Louis XVIII, but because he was in exile there was no real prospect of the restoration
of the Bourbon dynasty to the French throne. France was to remain a republic for the foreseeable
future. It was obvious that the revolution had caused deep and permanent changes in French
society. With the benet of hindsight, it can be safely said that many of the changes made during
the revolution were never reversed.
The French Revolution began in 1789 with the assertion of political rights by the Third Estate
and hopes for a constitutional settlement to benet the whole nation. Through 1789 to 1795 the
revolutionary ideals were challenged, rened, altered and rejected. The Constitution of 1795 resembled
more its predecessor enacted in 1791 than the Constitution of 1793. In 1795, it was impossible to
predict that power would be seized in 1799 by one of the republican generals, Napoleon Bonaparte.
The freedoms heralded in 1789 formed the foundation of the enduring concept of rights:
French citizens have the right to do ‘all that is not forbidden by the law’. With this concept
taking hold in the consciousness of the nation, there was no going back to a society based on the
corporate privilege of the ancien régime . Similarly, the idea that all people are equal prevented a
return to the inequities of privilege based on hereditary social status. The protection of property
rights also broke away from the ancien régime and beneted sections of the bourgeoisie and the
La Liberté by Nanine Vallain, 1793–94
Consider your own position in relation to the following questions:
1 What were the causes of the crisis and collapse of the ancien régime in France?
2 How and why did the revolution progress through its various stages?
3 How did the revolution consolidate its achievements?
4 Was the use of violence necessary to establish the new society?
5 What were the short-term and long-term effects of the revolution?
For each of the ve questions above, with reference to the sources in this book, present a response
in the form of:
+a mind map including key events and historians
+a three- or four-point short written response
+an essay.
Chronology activity
6 Use the chronology of events in each of the chapters to create two timelines: the ancien
régime and the New Society.
Use your own judgement to select the events you consider to be milestones in the
development of the revolutionary situation. For each of the milestones, write a short, three-
line description focusing on the signicance of the event.
Historians activity
7 Use the quotes from historians in this book to create a table in which you paraphrase,
using your own words, the ideas historians were expressing in their analysis of the French
Historian Quote Paraphrase
Visual source analysis
8 Select a visual source from each chapter of this book. For each image, identify key symbols
and summarise their meanings and write a half-page response in which you evaluate to
what extent the image accurately depicts the event(s) it illustrates. In your response, refer
to specic parts of the image and to historians’ views of the revolution.
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
CONtempOrarIes ON the CharaCter Of lOuIs XVI
The abbé Jean-Louis Soulavie (1781–1813), who published his account of the reign of Louis XVI in 1801, attributed
the unleashing of the revolution to the rigid social structure of the ancien régime. Soulavie pointed out that Louis XVI
was unsuitable to lead his country in the time of crisis because of his indecisive personality. The king seemed unable
to follow through his policy decisions and defend them when faced with firm resistance. Soulavie portrayed Louis XVI
as a scrupulous and morally irreproachable monarch, who could not choose between asserting the royal authority and
consenting to the demands of public opinion.1
In the decades leading to the revolution, a number of institutions questioned the
powers of the Crown and, in particular, the scope of the royal prerogative. During the
reign of Louis XV (1715–1774), the king considered it necessary to remind the judges of
the parlements, and France in general, of the extent of his authority. On 3 March 1766, the
Parlement of Paris, one of the sovereign courts of law, held a special session known as the lit
de justice, presided over by Louis XV, during which the king outlined his own interpretation
of law. The event became known as the ‘Session of the Scourging’ because the king lashed
out at the judges who objected to his will. When the king’s grandson and successor, Louis XVI,
began his reign in 1774, these words served as a powerful reminder of the monarch’s own
concept of authority.
royal prerogative
Customary authority,
privilege and immunity
belonging to the king alone
The sovereign courts of law
in France
Courts exercise their
authority in my name only.
Courts derive their existence
and their authority from me
e sovereign power resides
in my person only.
e nature of the sovereign
power consists of the spirit
of consultation, justice and
Independent and undivided
legislative power belongs to
me alone.
Public order in its entirety
emanates from me.
e rights and interests of the
nation are necessarily united
with my rights and interests
and rest only in my hands.
Alamy/Pictorial Press Ltd
ExTEnT oF royal auTHoriTy
according To l ouis xv
Beyond this book
The Nelson Modern History series includes numerous titles on a range of topics covered in senior History courses
around Australia. For further information about the series visit:
Chapter summary and
Chapter reVieW aCtiVities
conclude each chapter. They include a
brief precis of the topic, suggestions for
further reading, and a range of learning
activities that consolidate knowledge and
understanding of the chapter’s content.
These tasks incorporate a range of historical
understandings and skills.
the ConClusion
summarises the topic and includes
a series of activities to consolidate
your knowledge of it. More importantly,
these final tasks will help you build an
understanding and interpretation of
this period in history.
diagrams and
talKing sourCes
are used to visually summarise
complex ideas and events.
information boXes
contain extended discussions of
key events, concepts and historical
developments. Many also include
questions and activities.
historian boXes
introduce key historians and schools
of interpretation as a way of making
historiography clearer.
series editor aCKnoWledgements
Studying modern world history is a fascinating and exciting activity for several reasons. The
rst of these is our closeness to the modern past. All of us who live today are in direct contact
with recent and contemporary history. For example, teachers who use this book might have had
grandparents who experienced, in different ways, the events of the Second World War. Students
who read this book will probably have grandparents who lived through the Swinging Sixties
in Australia. Other students who come from more recently arrived migrant families will have
stories to tell about signicant historical events from their former homeland.
And when it comes to topicality, the study of modern history is also the study of events that
directly affect the way we live today. For instance, the work of 18th-century Scottish philosopher
Adam Smith is still being used by 21st-century politicians to underpin their economic policies.
Further, the activities of feminist and civil rights activists in the 1960s have altered the way the
international community and contemporary societies deal with their citizens. And the shadow of
two world wars still impinges upon the collective memories of dozens of nations, often leading
to confusion between commemoration of the past, celebration of long-ago endeavours and what
this book is about, the pursuit of investigative history.
The study of the modern past is exciting too because when it comes to investigating the late
19th, the 20th and the 21st centuries we can use graphic visual and auditory evidence that brings
us close to a fuller realisation of how life was lived then and how the people we are researching
looked and sounded. While these new sources of evidence can and do bring a freshness to our
understanding of the past, they also demand new techniques of historical investigation.
Finally, the study of modern history, which is, to use historian Pieter Geyl’s term, ‘an argument
without end’, is often more intense than other forms of history because of our closeness to the
events. This means that, even though conclusions may be passionately expressed, a carefully
tempered and dispassionate approach to studying controversial events needs to be employed in
the formulation of an historical explanation.
Having said all of that, enjoy your study of modern history.
Tony Taylor
Series editor
author aCKnoWledgements
The book is the result of years of working with my colleagues and my students. I would especially
like to acknowledge my students – their questions, curiosity and observations have shaped my
teaching and provided the focus for the activities in the text.
This book stands on the shoulders of giants: I should like to express my gratitude to my
teachers and colleagues Peter McPhee, Adrian Jones and David Garrioch, whose scholarship has
contributed to my interpretation of the causes, progress and outcomes of the French Revolution.
To Adam Zamoyski, I also owe thanks.
I am grateful for the guidance and assistance of my publishing editor, Michael Spurr at
Cengage, in the preparation of this textbook. He ensured that it met the requirements of the
series and supported me throughout the writing. I thank him for his forbearance and great sense
of humour. I also thank Robyn Beaver at Cengage, project editor, and Carolyn Glascodine, copy
editor. I also acknowledge the permissions, production and design teams and their work behind
the scenes, and the series editor, Tony Taylor.
As with my other publications, Alexander, Michael and Nicholas were my constant
companions. They provided a level of distraction, which proved encouraging, if not inspiring.
Finally, I would like to thank the person who proved to be the key in completing this project –
I’m grateful as ever.
Darius von Güttner
Alamy/Heritage Image Partnership Ltd
The French
The revolution that destroyed the ancien régime in France is considered by many as the
rst of the modern revolutions. It is one of the great turning points of the modern era
because never before had the society of a powerful country been transformed to give
political representation to its entire population on the basis of the principle of popular
France was one of the most powerful states in 18th-century Europe and inuenced
European economic, political and cultural development. French was not only spoken at
the court of Versailles, but across the courts of Europe. French culture, including arts and
literature, was emulated by the European elites. The ruler of France, Louis XVI, was not a
despotic tyrant, but a monarch pursuing an active reform agenda.
In the 1780s, the nancial situation of the French monarchy was the key reason for the
monarchy seeking a new national consensus with the summoning of the Estates-General.
The meeting of this representative institution, the rst in more than 150 years, set in
motion a chain of events that challenged the very foundations of absolute monarchy. Many
underlying tensions in France’s institutions made a revolution, if not inevitable, at least
conceivable. Louis XVI’s reform agenda was overtaken by revolution, as ideas became
action. The year 1789 marked the transition of France from a kingdom ruled by a divinely
ordained ruler to a constitutional monarchy, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the
Citizen heralded the birth of the new order.
The establishment of the new society was marked by division and idealism, which
turned into extremism. Religion, position of the king and the denition of who could be
considered a citizen each proved to be contentious. A series of political and economic
crises forced the revolution onto the path of emergency measures and war. In 1793,
terror became the ‘order of the day’ as France’s new republican government became more
The revolution cannot be summed up in simplistic terms as the confrontation between
feudalism and capitalism, or a bourgeois clash with nobles and the monarchy. It progressed
in a complex and unpredictable way, often contradicting the revolutionary ideas of
universal rights of man. The process of change exacted a high human cost. The violence
of the Terror and the imperial ambitions of Napoleon were examples of the compromise
of the revolutionary ideals that rst proclaimed ‘men are born and remain free and equal
in rights’. One of the most signicant outcomes of the revolution is the endurance of the
principles of popular sovereignty and civil equality – the foundations of modern liberal
democratic societies.
The French monarchy at the height of its glory. Gabriel François Doyen, Louis XVI reçoit à Reims les hommages des
chevaliers du Saint-Espirit, 13 juin 1775 (Louis XVI accepts the tributes of the knights of Saint-Spirit in Reims,
13 June 1775) (c. 1775). Commissioned for the chapel of Grands Augustins in Paris, Musée de Versailles.
Key figures and
Brissot was a lawyer and a leading
member of the Girondin faction,
also known as the ‘Brissotins’. He
was elected as a deputy to both the
Legislative Assembly and the National
Convention. In October 1793, he was
executed with other leading Girondins.
Jacques-Pierre Brissot
Brienne was the Archbishop of Toulouse.
In May 1787, he was appointed the
Chief Minister. He attempted to push
tax reform through the Assembly of
Notables and the Parlement of Paris,
but was unsuccessful and resigned in
August 1789. During the revolution, he
took the Clerical Oath and continued as
a constitutional bishop. He was arrested
during the Terror and died in prison.
lomÉnie de Brienne
Barnave was a lawyer and a deputy for
the Third Estate to the Estates-General.
He was a member of the Feuillants
who favoured constitutional monarchy.
He was arrested in August 1792 and
executed in November 1793.
antoine-Pierre Barnave
Calonne was a career administrator.
From 1783, he was Director-General
of Finances. He was the author of the
unsuccessful reform plan that was
rejected by the Assembly of Notables
in 1787; he was replaced by Loménie
de Brienne.
charles-alexandre de
calonne (1734–1802)
This page, left to right: Alamy/Masterpics; Alamy/Stocktrek Images, Inc.;
Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, 1784 (oil on canvas), Vigee-Lebrun,
Elisabeth Louise (1755-1842)/Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty
Queen Elizabeth II, 2015
Bonaparte was a revolutionary general,
consul and, from 1804, emperor of
the French. He gained prominence in
1793 after retaking Toulon from the
British. In 1795, he was responsible for
suppressing the royalist insurrection.
He was a gifted strategist who won
several spectacular victories. In 1799, he
overthrew the Directory and established
the Consulate. In 1812, he was defeated
after a disastrous campaign in Russia. He
was forced into exile, initially to Elba and
later St Helena.
naPoleon BonaParte
Bailly was the scientist who rst
tracked the orbit of Halley’s Comet.
Elected as President of the National
Assembly in June 1789, he presided
over the Tennis Court Oath. After
the fall of the Bastille he was elected
Mayor of Paris. His popularity
declined following the Champ de
Mars Massacre; he was guillotined
in 1793.
Jean-sylvain Bailly
Artois was the youngest brother of
Louis XVI. In 1788, he was one of
the signatories of the Memoir of the
Princes of the Blood. He left France
shortly after the fall of the Bastille. In
1824, he became king as Charles X,
but was deposed in 1830 and died
in exile.
charles, count
oF artois, (1757–1836)
Danton was a lawyer and a founder
of the Cordeliers Club. He was
actively involved in overthrowing
the monarchy on 10 August 1792.
Later he became Minister for Justice
and a member of the Committee of
Public Safety. He was a supporter of
the Terror in 1793; later he called
for moderation and was arrested for
conspiracy and executed.
GeorGes danton
Condorcet was a philosophe who was
a deputy to the Convention and a
member of the Girondin faction. He
was an advocate of the abolition of the
death penalty and promoted the rights
of women; he died in prison.
marquis de condorcet
David was a painter, best known for
his great painting La Mort de Marat
(The Death of Marat) and the quick
sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way
to execution. He was a member of
the Jacobin Club; as a deputy of the
Convention he voted for the execution
of Louis XVI.
Jacques-louis david
Desmoulins was a lawyer and a
journalist. He agitated for crowds
to arm themselves at the Palais
Royal on 12 July 1789. He was a
founding member of the Cordeliers
Club and was elected to the National
Convention. Desmoulins was a
moderate Jacobin, a supporter
of Danton and later a critic of
Robespierre. He was arrested together
with Danton and guillotined.
camille desmoulins
This page, clockwise from top left: Getty Images/DEA/G. DAGLI ORTI/
De Agostini; Alamy/The Art Archive; Corbis/The Gallery Collection;
Alamy/The Art Archive
Dumouriez was a soldier and a
diplomat. He became a general after
his victory at Valmy on 20 September
1792. He was a sympathiser of the
Girondins and defected to Austria
after his attempted coup against the
dumouriez (1739–1823)
Fouché was a priest and later a
deputy in the National Convention.
He voted for Louis XVI’s death. As
a representative on mission, he was
responsible for the brutal pacication
of Lyons. Fouché was a factional
enemy of Robespierre and the chief
organiser of the coup of Thermidor.
He survived the revolution and
became chief of police for Napoleon.
JosePh FouchÉ (1759–1820)
Grégoire was a clergyman and an
advocate for the abolition of slavery.
He was deputy for the clergy to the
Estates-General and later joined
the constitutional Church. Grégoire
refused to renounce Christianity
during the de-Christianisation.
henri (aBBÉ) GrÉGoire
Gouges was a playwright and
journalist, and an advocate for
women, demanding their equal rights
and treatment. In 1791, Gouges
published the Declaration of the Rights
of Woman and the Female Citizen,
declaring that ‘Woman is born free
and remains equal in rights’. She was
guillotined in 1793.
olymPe de GouGes
Hébert was a journalist and publisher
of the radical newspaper Le Père
Duchesne 1790–94. He was a member
of the Cordeliers Club and the
Commune of Paris. He pursued
policies favouring the Paris poor, for
example the Law of the Maximum and
the Law of Suspects. Later he was the
organiser of the de-Christianisation
campaign. His pursuit of direct
democracy threatened the government
and he was arrested together with his
followers. He was guillotined in
May 1794.
Jacques hÉBert (1757–1794)
Mirabeau was a liberal noble elected
as a deputy for the Third Estate to the
Estates-General. He was inuential in
the early stages of the revolution and
supported constitutional monarchy
following the British model. In 1790,
he became a secret adviser to Louis
XVI. His revolutionary legacy was
discredited when his secret letters
were found in the king’s iron chest. He
was, nevertheless, the rst to be buried
as a national hero in the Panthéon.
count miraBeau
Louis XVI was King of France from
1774. In 1770, he married Marie
Antoinette, the youngest daughter of
Maria Theresa of Austria. In 1788,
he summoned the Estates-General,
which is considered to be the starting
point of the revolution. From October
1789, he was a virtual prisoner of the
revolution. He attempted to escape
from Paris on 20 June 1791 but was
recognised and captured at Varennes,
and then forcibly returned to the
capital. He was overthrown in the
insurrection of 10 August 1792 and
faced trial before the Convention in
December 1792. He was condemned
to death and guillotined on
21 January 1793.
louis xvi (1754–1793)
Lafayette was a volunteer in the
American War of Independence. A
liberal noble, Lafayette was inuential
during the early stages of the
revolution; he was a deputy to the
Estates-General for the nobility and
was appointed the rst commander of
the National Guard in July 1789. He
lost popularity after his troops opened
re on the demonstrators at Champ
de Mars in July 1791. He defected to
Austria on 19 August 1792 where he
was detained until 1797.
the marquis de
laFayette (1757–1834)
Montesquieu was a nobleman and
lawyer who held the position of
president of the Parlement of Bordeaux.
In his writings, he commented on
various political subjects. In 1748, he
published The Spirit of Laws in which he
outlined the idea of the separation of the
powers, enabling a system of checks and
balances of the branches of government.
montesquieu (1689–1775)
Marie Antoinette married the future
Louis XVI to seal an alliance between
France and Austria. She was deeply
unpopular and often accused of
betraying France; she was used as a
scapegoat for the kingdom’s nancial
problems. She was a devoted mother
who shared the same fate as the king,
following him to the guillotine on
16 October 1793.
marie antoinette
This page, clockwise from top left: Getty Images/Imagno; Alamy/The
Art Archive; Mary Evans Picture Library/CAGP/Iberfoto; Getty Images/
Fine Art Images; Alamy/The Art Archive
Marat was a physician, radical
journalist and publisher of L’Ami
du peuple, and a member of the
Cordeliers Club. His demagogy and
denunciations incited violence, which
some have seen as leading to the
September Massacres of 1792. He was
assassinated in a bath by Charlotte
Corday, a Girondin supporter, on
13 July 1793.
Jean-Paul marat
Necker was a Swiss banker and
Controller-General of Finances from
1776. In January 1781, he published
his misleading Compte rendu in an
attempt to restore condence in the
Crown’s nances. Necker claimed that
the accounts showed the nances to
be 10 million livres in surplus; the
cost of royal borrowing was hidden in
the notes to the accounts.
Jacques necker (1732–1806)
Robespierre was a lawyer who was
elected deputy for the Third Estate to
the Estates-General. In 1792, he was
elected to the National Convention
and from July 1793 he was a leading
member of the Committee of Public
Safety. Robespierre was a key gure
of the Terror. He was arrested and
guillotined after a conspiracy against
him and his followers.
maximilien roBesPierre
Roland, who was married to Manon,
was an industrialist, politician and
government minister, and one of the
leaders of the Girondin faction. After
their fall he went into hiding.
He committed suicide after receiving
news of his wife’s death.
Jean-marie roland
Roland was famous for her salon
in Paris, which attracted all the
important revolutionary leaders,
including Robespierre and Brissot. She
was imprisoned after the fall of the
Girondin faction and executed on
8 November 1793.
manon PhiliPon roland
Rousseau was a political writer,
philosophe and a contributor to the
Encyclopédie. He suggested the ideas
of the ‘general will’ in his works Émile
(1762) and The Social Contract (1762).
His works became inuential after 1789.
Jean-Jacques rousseau
Roux was a priest and later a member
of the constitutional Church. He was
a member of the Paris Commune from
August 1792 and was leader of the
radical group known as enragés. Roux
was arrested in September 1793 and
committed suicide in January 1794.
Jacques roux (1752–1794)
Saint-Just was a lawyer and became a
member of the National Guard in 1789.
He was elected deputy to the National
Convention. He was a close associate
of Robespierre on the Committee of
Public Safety. Saint-Just was arrested
and guillotined with Robespierre.
louis de saint-Just
This page, clockwise from top left: Bibliothèque nationale de France;
Alamy/Masterpics; Alamy/Classic Image
Orléans was a prince of the blood
and head of the House of d’Orléans,
the younger branch of the Royal
House of France. He was a deputy
to the National Assembly and later
to the Convention, and a member of
the Montagnards. He voted for the
execution of his relative Louis XVI. He
was guillotined in 1793.
louis, duke oF orlÉans,
later known as PhiliPPe
ÉGalitÉ (1747–1793)
Provence was the younger brother
of Louis XVI. He left France at the
time of the royal family’s failed ight
to Varennes in June 1791. After the
execution of Louis XVI he declared
himself regent for his nephew, Louis
XVII. He lived in exile until the defeat
of Napoleon in 1814 and 1815. He
was King of France from 1814 until
his death 10 years later.
louis, count oF
Provence (1755–1824)
Sieyès was a priest and a radical writer,
author of the inuential pamphlet What
Is the Third Estate?. He was a deputy for
the Third Estate to the Estates-General
and later in the National Convention.
He was also instrumental in bringing
Napoleon to power.
emmanuel (aBBÉ) sieyès
The original meaning of bourgeois
was ‘citizen of a town’. By 1789, the
term was used to describe the middle
classes. During the revolution, it
referred to the urban upper middle
class of the Third Estate: professionals
such as lawyers, doctors, bankers,
brokers, manufacturers and ofce
holders in the bureaucracy.
A committee of ve directors chosen
by the Council of Five Hundred
and approved by the Council of
Ancients as the executive branch of
government. It was in power from 26
October 1795 to 10 November 1799.
directory Constitutional monarchist deputies
who split from the Jacobins over a
petition to depose Louis XVI after the
ight to Varennes in June 1791. They
formed their own club, named after
the monastery of the Feuillant monks
in which they met.
The ruling house of France, a branch of
the Capetian dynasty. The rst Bourbon
King of France and the direct ancestor of
Louis XVI was Henry IV who ruled from
1589 to 1610. Spain and Luxembourg
currently have Bourbon monarchs.
BourBon, the dynasty
The radical revolutionary club of the
Cordeliers was founded in April–May
1790 under the leadership of Danton,
Marat and Hébert. It attracted many
members because of the low fees and
its radical rhetoric. It also welcomed
women to its meetings, which were
each attended by about 400 people.
Hébert’s newspaper, Le Père Duchesne,
became its mouthpiece. It lost power
and inuence after the Terror and was
discredited and closed in March 1794.
The Committee of General Security
was one of the two leading government
committees established in 1793. It was
a body charged by the Convention
with policing state security throughout
the country, issuing passports and
prosecuting foreign agents. It oversaw
revolutionary justice.
committee oF General
A ribbon or knot of ribbon or rosette
worn in the hat as a badge. After the
fall of the Bastille, the newly formed
National Guard used a cockade of
white, edged with red and blue, the
colours of the king and the city of Paris.
The wearing of this tricolour cockade
became symbolic of one’s support for
the revolution and a patriotic duty.
Also known as orders, the three groups
that divided French society until
the revolution: the First Estate, the
clergy; the Second Estate, the nobility;
the Third Estate, the commoners.
Membership of an estate determined
social status, opportunity and privilege.
The more prominent of the two leading
government committees established
in 1793 and responsible for both
internal and external affairs. Consisting
of 12 members, it functioned as the
executive branch of government from
April 1793 to October 1795. It was
disbanded in 1795.
committee oF PuBlic saFety
An English traveller and a keen
observer. He became a writer on
agriculture and related topics and
founded the Annals of Agriculture in
1784. He visited France in 1787–89
and wrote an account of his travels.
arthur younG (1741–1820)
A gathering of eminent individuals
(notables) summoned to advise
the monarch. It was convened
in February 1787, and again in
November 1788.
assemBly oF notaBles
The consultative assembly comprising
representatives of the three estates
of the realm: clergy, nobility and
commoners. The Estates-General were
summoned by Louis XVI for May
1789 to consider the reform of the
taxation system. The emancipation
of the deputies of the Third Estate led
to the Estates-General transforming
into the rst revolutionary legislature,
the National Assembly in June 1789.
Citizen soldiers who came to Paris
from the provinces for the Festival
of the Federation in July 1790, and
again on 14 July 1792. Many were
from Marseilles and participated in
the uprising of 10 August 1792. Some
returned home; others went on to join
the regular army at the front.
Girondins were a group of deputies
in the Legislative Assembly, with
some from the Gironde region, in
south-west France. They were one
of the two major factions in the
National Convention (the other being
the Montagnards). They opposed
the Jacobins in 1793. Many of the
Girondins were supporters of the
1793 ‘federalist revolt’ against the
Convention. They were expelled from
the Convention during the Reign of
Terror; their leaders were arrested, tried
and guillotined in October 1793.The
term was rarely used prior to 1793;
their opponents often called them
Brissotins, after their most prominent
spokesman, Jacques-Pierre Brissot.
Followers of Hébert, a journalist and
prominent member of the Cordeliers
Club. They were were anti-Christian
and, during the de-Christianisation
campaign, they turned several
thousand churches, including Notre
Dame, into temples of reason.
Informally led by Danton, who
together with his supporters was
accused of winding back the Terror
and being ‘indulgent’ towards counter-
A revolutionary club that met in
a former Jacobin monastery, the
debating centre of increasingly
radical revolutionary ideas. Its
branches spread all across France
and Europe. The Jacobins rose to
political dominance in Paris and in
many provincial cities. Because of its
association with the policies of the
Terror, the Convention ordered the
Paris Club to close in November 1794.
A single-chamber parliament elected
under the constitutional monarchy
of 1791–92, and ended with the
elections to the National Convention.
leGislative assemBly
This single-chamber assembly was
elected in September 1792 and
proclaimed the republic. The 745
deputies were divided between
Girondins and the more radical
Montagnards, with a large number of
crossbench members (the Plain) in
between. It remained in session until
October 1795.
national convention
The name of the Montagnard faction
derived from the location (high at the
back) of the seats in the National Con-
vention its members occupied. They
were the main faction opposed to the
Girondins. Estimates of the number of
Montagnards vary considerably, from
140 to 300, and a signicant propor-
tion of its membership belonged to
the Jacobin Club. They were support-
ed by the Paris Commune and by the
sans-culottes; of the 24 deputies elected
from Paris, 21 were Montagnards. The
Montagnards came to dominate the
Convention in 1793, but lost inuence
with the demise of Robespierre.
Also known as the ‘Gilded Youth’,
these were anti-Jacobin youth
from wealthy families. They wore
amboyant clothes and, after the fall
of Robespierre, violently attacked his
sympathisers, supporters of the Terror
and the sans-culottes.
A citizens’ militia formed in July 1789
in the Paris districts and other cities
to maintain order, protect property
against mob violence, and to guard
against counter-revolutionary plots.
national Guard
Nobles, such as magistrates, court
ofcials and bureaucrats, who
acquired their noble status from
holding ofce, often a venal ofce.
noBility oF the roBe
national assemBly
The National Assembly, after July
1789, the National Constituent
Assembly, and often simply called the
Assembly, was a direct successor of
the Estates-General. It emerged as the
national representative body after
17 June 1789 when the deputies of
the Third Estate and some deputies
of the other estates proclaimed
themselves the National Assembly.
After initial opposition, Louis XVI
recognised the National Assembly
on 27 June 1789 when he requested
all three estates to unite as one body.
The National Assembly served as the
legislature from 1789 to 1791.
Intellectuals and writers of the 18th
century, such as Voltaire, Montesquieu,
Rousseau and Diderot, who advocated
the use of reason instead of custom,
tradition, faith or superstition as the
basis for the organisation of society.
They were the key contributors to the
The 48 areas into which Paris was
divided for administrative purposes
were called sections; they replaced
the former 60 districts. Each was
run by a revolutionary surveillance
committee and was able to organise
armed men, mostly sans-culottes.
Other cities also had their sections.
Section assemblies played a major role
in shaping uprisings and inuencing
the government.
The centre or non-aligned faction
in the Convention, which sat in the
at middle area of the chamber and
generally remained uncommitted
to the opposing Montagnards and
The red Phrygian bonnet had been
worn by freed slaves in ancient Rome
as a symbol of their newly acquired
freedom. It symbolised personal liberty
in revolutionary France.
red caP oF liBerty
(PhryGian Bonnet)
Clergy who refused to take an oath of
allegiance to the Civil Constitution of
the Clergy.
reFractory or non-
JurinG clerGy
Revolutionaries who made a virtue of
their plain dress, in contrast to that of
the nobility and the bourgeoisie. They
were mostly workers, shopkeepers,
petty traders, craftsmen and the poor,
and wore trousers instead of the
breeches and stockings of the higher
Deputies sent from Paris by the
National Convention who were
entrusted with considerable powers
of repression in the provinces,
especially during the Terror. They
also recruited men for the army. After
June 1793, they were appointed by
the Committee of Public Safety. One of
their tasks became the suppression of
the Federalist revolt.
rePresentatives on
Surveillance or watch committees
were formed in each commune in
March 1793 to maintain public
security and order. They often took
the place of local government in
the districts and were controlled by
extreme Jacobins.
The function of the 13 parlements was
to administer justice and to register,
remonstrate and publish royal edicts.
The word ‘peasant’ derived from the
Old French word paisent, meaning
‘someone who lives in the country’.
Peasants made up approximately
80 per cent of the population.
The revolutionary municipal
government of Paris formed in July
1789 by an insurrectional committee
composed of 144 delegates – three
from each of the 48 sections of the
city. It was opposed by the Girondins,
who tried to curb its growing
inuence on the Assembly and later
on the Convention. In 1793, the
Paris Commune and the Jacobins
ousted Girondin members from the
Paris commune
Old and established noble families,
who could trace their lineage back
to the Middle Ages. They often owed
their status to their service to the
Crown in battle.
noBility oF the sword
Absolutism, absolute monarchy
Refers to a monarchical form of
government in which the monarch
exercises political power unrestricted
by a constitution.
Ancien régime
French term for an old or former
regime; used to describe the system of
government and life before the turmoil
of 1789.
Armée Révolutionnaire
An armed force of Jacobins and
sans-culottes raised in late summer
1793 to spread the revolution in the
countryside and to force farmers to
release their stocks of grain for Paris
and other towns. Disbanded after the
executions of the Hébertists in 1794.
Aristocratic revolt
A period immediately following the
Assembly of Notables, which met in
February 1787 and refused to endorse
the reforms proposed by Louis XVI
aimed at reducing the Crown’s budget
decit by introducing a uniform
tax. The revolt was characterised
by resistance of the privileged
estates through the parlements and a
widespread, popular unrest in Paris
and the provinces in support of the
parlements, whose powers were limited
by the king’s edict of May 1788.
The revolt came to an end with the
reappointment of Necker as nance
minister, and the king’s decision to
summon the Estates-General for
May 1789.
Interest-bearing bonds based on the
value of conscated church property
that became paper money after
April 1790. They rapidly lost value,
and by 1795 were almost worthless.
In-kind tax of unpaid work on land
or roads or aid given to troops by
peasants for a specied number of
days each year.
Divine right
A political doctrine of royal legitimacy
which maintains that a monarch
is subject to no earthly authority,
deriving the right to rule directly from
the will of God. It is often expressed in
the phrase ‘by the grace of God’.
Federalism, federalists
The federalist movement was
particularly inuential in Caen,
Bordeaux, Lyons and Marseilles. In
contrast to the Vendée insurgents, the
federalists proclaimed their loyalty
to the revolution and the republic,
but objected to the disproportionate
inuence of the sans-culottes and the
dominance of Paris over the provinces.
A societal structure based on the
relationship between sections of the
population (lords, vassals and serfs)
and based on the holding of land in
exchange for service or labour.
Salt tax.
The 36 major administrative divisions
of pre-revolutionary France.
Lit de justice
A royal session of the Parlement of
Paris presided over by the king to
ensure registration of the king’s edicts.
An individual or group focused on
altering existing structures of society
in fundamental ways, often through
violent means.
A direct land tax imposed on each
household and based on how much
land it held.
The supreme power. Referring to
the ultimate umpire or authority in
the decision-making process of the
state. In pre-revolutionary France,
sovereignty was vested in the king.
Successive French constitutions
placed the sovereignty in the people
of France, to be exercised by their
elected representatives in the national
Direct tax on income levied during
the American War of Independence
(1778–83) until 1786.
Introduction 9
Key terms
and concepts
Key documents
August Decrees
The result of the deliberations
of the Assembly between 4–11
August 1789, on the reform and
dismantling of the feudal system.
The Assembly abolished feudal dues
on 4 August, but in the following
week made a distinction between
‘personal servitude’, which was
abolished outright, and property
rights, for which peasants had to pay
compensation. Its immediate effect
was the renunciation of noble and
clerical privilege.
Brunswick Manifesto
Published on 25 July 1792 by the
commander of the Austro-Prussian
forces invading France, it threatened
summary justice for the inhabitants
of Paris if any harm was to come
to the royal family. The manifesto
galvanised the sans-culottes into a
popular insurrection that overthrew
the monarchy on 10 August 1792.
Cahiers de doléances
Lists or books of grievances, drawn
up in early 1789 by representatives of
each of the three estates. They exposed
problems inherent in the political and
social system and contained proposals
to be acted on by the deputies to the
Civil Constitution of the Clergy,
12 July 1790
A law that aimed at reform of the
administrative structures of the Roman
Catholic Church in France, but which
in effect subordinated the Church to
the government, making it a national
Constitution of 1791
The Constitution accepted by Louis
XVI in September 1791. It provided
for France as a constitutional
monarchy; the separation of powers,
with the National Assembly as the
legislative body, the king at the head
of the executive branch and the
judiciary independent of the other two
branches. It ceased to be operational
on 10 August 1792.
Constitution of 1793
Also known as the Jacobin Constitution.
It included provision of welfare and
public education, the right to rebel
when the government violates the rights
of the people and vote by universal
male suffrage. Its implementation was
postponed ‘until peace’.
Constitution of 1795
Also known as the Constitution of the
Year III, it was ratied on 22 August
1795 and remained in effect until the
coup of 18 Brumaire (9 November
1799). It established a liberal republic
with a bicameral legislature and a ve-
member executive government known
as the Directory.
Declaration of the Rights of Man
and the Citizen, 26 August 1789
Passed by the National Assembly,
it proclaimed the fundamental
principles on which French society
is based, famously starting with the
pronouncement that ‘Men are born
and remain free and equal in rights’.
Encyclical Charitas,
13 April 1791
Pope Pius VI’s response to the reform
of the Church in France addressed
to the French bishops in which the
head of the Roman Catholic Church
condemned the Civil Constitution of
the Clergy as heretical and schismatic.
Law of 14 Frimaire II
Enacted on 4 December 1793 and
known as the Constitution of the
Terror, it consolidated all previous
Terror legislation and streamlined
the administration of the Republic by
clarifying the relationship between
government bodies and delineating
their roles.
The Law of the Maximum,
29 September 1793
The law that provided for maximum
prices of foodstuffs and gave the
government the right to requisition
goods from suppliers. Its main purpose
was to set price limits, thus preventing
rising food prices.
Levée en masse decree
Enacted on 23 August 1793, it was
the rst instance of conscription in
modern history and expressed the
state’s right to require all citizens to
meet a national emergency.
Tennis Court Oath, 20 June 1789
An oath sworn by the deputies of the
Third Estate ‘not to separate, and to
reassemble wherever circumstances
require, until the constitution of the
kingdom is established’.
What Is the Third Estate?, 1789
A political pamphlet written by Abbé
Sieyès. It called for the Estates-General
to be genuinely representative by
providing the Third Estate with double
representation and called for the
voting procedure to be by head and
not by order.
St Denis
St Martin
Du Temple
St Antoine
St Marcel
St Victor
St Jacques
St Michel
St Germain
St Honoré
Versailles (16 km)
Réveillon factory (1 km)
0 500
Built-up area
Champ de Mars
Hôtel des Invalides
National Assembly
La Force Prison
Temple Prison
Place de la Révolution
Palace and Gardens of Tuileries
Jacobin Club
Palais Royal
Feuillants Club
Cordeliers Club
Les Halles
Hôtel de Ville
Paris during the French Revolution
Alamy/The Artchivest
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
In the second half of the 18th century, the very roots of the long-established social, political
and economic foundations of French society, based on privilege, hierarchy and tradition,
were being challenged. The French king, Louis XVI, faced with pressure from elite groups
in his kingdom, recognised the need for reform, which in his assessment was limited to
the issue of taxation. In 1781, the Compte rendu, the rst ever statement of the Crown’s
nances, reected and encouraged the growing interest by the French public in economic
affairs. These challenges, together with the Crown’s nancial difculties as a result of
France’s involvement in costly foreign wars, convinced Louis XVI and his successive
nance ministers to implement a range of radical reforms to increase the income of the
Crown. Although there is no consensus among historians on the causes of the revolution,
there is a broad acknowledgement of the complex nature of the tensions and problems
that became apparent when an unfolding political crisis brought them to the surface.
In the early 18th century, France was an absolute monarchy ruled by the Bourbon dynasty,
which claimed the throne by divine right. As the century progressed, France’s system
of government, and indeed the whole structure of society, came under increasing pressure
for change. It made the crisis possible, but not unavoidable; it was not evident that France
was on the brink of a revolution. The uctuating economic activity in the 1770s and 1780s
had not made most peasants poorer and had not prevented
the bourgeoisie from increasing its wealth. The need for change
was caused mainly by the nancial difculties King Louis
XVI’s government faced as a result of France’s involvement in
foreign wars. When the Crown could no longer afford to nance
the operation of the government, the king attempted to force
through a reform of the scal system. At this critical point the
nancial crisis turned into a political crisis, with various sections
of French society demanding a constitution to regulate the
relationship between those governing and those being governed.
When the monarchy and the nobility resisted such a change in
1789, the revolution began.
The origins of
the revolution
+What was the structure of French
society before 1789?
+What ideas contributed to the
revolutionary movement in France?
+What were the long- and short-
term factors that contributed to the
French Revolution?
This painting of King Louis XIV at Versailles, titled Réception du Grand Condé par Louis XIV (Versailles,
1674), (The Reception for Prince Conde at Versailles) was created by Jean-Léon Gérôme in 1878.
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The making of a revolution
For centuries, France held a dominant position in European politics. Maintaining that status
caused a permanent decit in the royal nances, in particular because of an increasingly
costly rivalry with Britain. While Britain’s fast-growing economy allowed it to concentrate on
building its colonial empire, France’s overseas expansion always came second to competition
with other European states on the Continent, such as Austria and Britain’s ally, Prussia. France
was badly affected by the 18th century’s most extensive conict, the Seven Years’ War (1756–
63), perhaps indicating that the French monarchs were unable to cope with the challenges
posed by the growth of Prussia and the British capture of French colonial possessions in India,
Quebec and the Caribbean. Another sign of France’s decreasing international inuence was
its inability, just prior to Louis XVI’s accession in 1774, to prevent annexation of territories
belonging to Poland, one of its traditional allies, by Prussia, Austria and Russia.
SOURCE 1.1 Europe in 1763
Rome Constantinople
St Petersburg
Black Sea
North Sea
Holy Roman Empire
Habsburg possessions
Hohenzollern possessions
German states
Italian states
Capital city
0 500
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Louis XIV – the Sun King
The reign of France’s Sun King, Louis XIV
(1643–1715), is one of the longest in European
history. For more than 50 years, Louis had
personally ruled France, providing the rest of
Europe with an example of an absolutist style
of government. His reign marked the growth
of France as one of the great powers of the
Continent. Louis reformed the administration
of justice and promoted commerce and industry,
including the development of overseas colonies.
As king, he established royal academies for
architecture, art, literature, science and music,
and built the royal palaces of the Louvre, now
an art gallery, and Versailles, where he based
the French court. Louis XIV outlived all of
his immediate family with the exception of
his grandson, Philip V of Spain, and a great-
grandson, who became Louis XV when the Sun King died in 1715. The name of
Louis XIV became synonymous with greatness, power, splendour and glory.
Alamy/liszt collection
SOURCE 1.3 Louis XIV, France’s Sun King
The Bourbon dynasty
The Bourbon dynasty, which ruled France at the
time of the revolution, is one of the most ancient
European royal houses. It is a branch of the dynasty
founded in 987 by Hugh Capet (c. 941–996), who
was elected ‘King of the Franks’ after the death
Louis V, the last king of the Carolingian dynasty.
In 1328, when direct descendants of Hugh Capet
did not produce a surviving male heir to the French
throne, the succession passed to their cousin, the
head of the younger branch of the House of Capet,
the Valois dynasty. Similarly, in 1589, the Valois died
out and the throne passed to Henry IV (1553–1610),
the rst French monarch of the Bourbon dynasty.
When, in 1792, King Louis XVI was deposed, the
government of the French Republic decided that
the former king and his family would be referred to
by the family name of their ancient ancestor Hugh
Capet, and thus Louis became Louis Capet.
SOURCE 1.2 The coat of arms of France
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
Seven Years’ War (1756–63)
The conict that Winston Churchill called ‘the rst world war’ began when the European powers sought
to extend their inuence both in Europe and overseas. It was a continuation of the War of Austrian
Succession (1740–48), which was fought over the right of Maria Theresa of Austria, the daughter of Holy
Roman Emperor Charles VI (1685–1740), to succeed her father as ruler of all realms of the Habsburg
The Seven Years’ War also became known as the ‘French and Indian War’, as ghting between Britain
and France took place on the American and Canadian frontiers and India. In the Treaty of Paris, which
ended the war in 1763, France acknowledged the loss of all of its territory on the North American mainland
and the Indian subcontinent, and Britain emerged as the dominant European colonial power.
North Sea
St Petersburg
Black Sea
0 500
Allies: Habsburgs, France, Russia,
Sweden and Spain
Allies: Great Britain, Hohenzollerns
and Portugal
Main areas of fighting
Non-combatant nation
Bay of
New York
British, 1755
British, 1763
French, 1763
Spanish, 1763
SOURCE 1.4 The Seven Years’ War was fought in Europe, North America and India.
At the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign, France attempted to recover its pride from these foreign
policy defeats by supporting Britain’s American colonies in their war for independence. A small
French contingent signicantly aided the Americans, and France hosted the peace conference at
which Britain conceded the colonies’ independence in 1783. Britain lost its Thirteen Colonies,
but while France won a propaganda victory over Britain, its nancial losses were huge. This
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
diplomatic success brought no tangible rewards for France and its costs added to the
growing pressure for reform of France’s scal system, which by 1789 had developed into a
political crisis.
Relating to government
taxation policy
The American Declaration of Independence
On 2 July 1776, a convention of delegates from the Thirteen British Colonies in North America met in
Philadelphia and adopted a resolution declaring the colonies’ independence from Britain. Two days later,
the delegates approved the
Declaration of Independence
in which they outlined the reasons for their
renunciation of British sovereignty, providing the moral rationale for their decision and a list of grievances
against King George III. The authors of the Declaration were inuenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment,
and in particular the theories of English thinker John Locke and French
Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In a clear break from the past, the colonists declared ‘that all men are created equal’ and were ‘endowed
by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’. They declared these rights to be ‘Life, Liberty and
the pursuit of Happiness’. In deance of the divine right of kings, the American colonists argued that
governments derive their powers from ‘the consent of the governed’, who have the right to abolish them
when ‘any form of government becomes destructive’. The ideals proclaimed in the Declaration and the
subsequent development of the Constitution of the United States of America (ratied in 1788) had a
profound impact on the ancien régimes of Europe.
The American War of Independence, which began in April 1775, ended in June 1783 with the Treaty of
Paris when Britain recognised the establishment of the United States.
Ancien régime
The French system of government before the revolution is best described as an absolute
monarchy and is often referred to as the ancien régime. This term was coined in 1789
by the revolutionaries who wished to distance themselves from the system they sought to
reform. The kingdom of France was ruled by the king, the head of the Bourbon dynasty.
King Louis XVI, whose reign started in 1774, was an absolute monarch who ruled by
divine right; his authority and the right to rule were subject to the will of God alone.
In theory, there were no legal limits to the monarch’s power over his realm. In practice, however,
the king was bound by the laws and customs of the land, and exercising his authority depended
on the agreement of France’s elite: the nobility and the clergy. The king could not, for example,
alter the rules of hereditary succession, under which the throne passed to a king’s closest living
male relative. The king resided in Versailles and from there he appointed his ministers to
advise him on the government of the kingdom. The ministers did not form a collective group
or a cabinet in the modern sense, but were responsible to Louis XVI individually for the tasks
assigned to them and their departments. The king was thus at the centre of the government,
directing, if not formulating, government policy. The lack of a cabinet meant, however, that
ministers and their supporters competed against each other for Louis favour.
ancien régime
French term for an old or
previous regime; used to
describe the system
of government and life
before 1789
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The abbé Jean-Louis Soulavie (1781–1813), who published his account of the reign of Louis XVI in 1801, attributed
the unleashing of the revolution to the rigid social structure of the ancien régime. Soulavie pointed out that Louis XVI
was unsuitable to lead his country in the time of crisis because of his indecisive personality. The king seemed unable
to follow through his policy decisions and defend them when faced with firm resistance. Soulavie portrayed Louis XVI
as a scrupulous and morally irreproachable monarch, who could not choose between asserting the royal authority and
consenting to the demands of public opinion.1
In the decades leading to the revolution, a number of institutions questioned the
powers of the Crown and, in particular, the scope of the royal prerogative. During the
reign of Louis XV (1715–1774), the king considered it necessary to remind the judges of
the parlements, and France in general, of the extent of his authority. On 3 March 1766, the
Parlement of Paris, one of the sovereign courts of law, held a special session known as the lit
de justice, presided over by Louis XV, during which the king outlined his own interpretation
of law. The event became known as the ‘Session of the Scourging’ because the king lashed
out at the judges who objected to his will. When the king’s grandson and successor, Louis XVI,
began his reign in 1774, these words served as a powerful reminder of the monarch’s own
concept of authority.
royal prerogative
Customary authority,
privilege and immunity
belonging to the king alone
The sovereign courts of law
in France
Courts exercise their
authority in my name only.
Courts derive their existence
and their authority from me
e sovereign power resides
in my person only.
e nature of the sovereign
power consists of the spirit
of consultation, justice and
Independent and undivided
legislative power belongs to
me alone.
Public order in its entirety
emanates from me.
e rights and interests of the
nation are necessarily united
with my rights and interests
and rest only in my hands.
Louis XV in Coronation Robes (oil on canvas), Loo, Louis Michel van (1707-71)
(studio of)/© Wallace Collection, London, UK / The Bridgeman Art Library
ExtEnt of royal authority
according to louis xV
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Alamy/The Art Archive
King Louis XVI (1755–1793)
Before he became king, Louis XVI was known
as Louis-Auguste. As the eldest male heir to
the throne, he was known as the dauphin.
He was well educated, with a particular
interest in mathematics, physics and history.
Although Louis was interested in technological
innovations, his education and upbringing
reinforced his own perception of the monarch’s
traditional position as an absolute ruler.
From the beginning of his reign, Louis
pursued a number of reformist policies, wishing
to rebuild confidence in the monarchy. He often
took the advice of his ministers, but was not
persistent when faced with rm opposition to
his ideas. This inconsistency made him look
indecisive and weak. Louis XVI agreed to support
the American colonists nancially in their
rebellion against Britain and, while their success
gave the perception of the restoration of France’s position in Europe, there were no tangible
benets to France; the loans that financed the war added to the Crown’s crippling debt. Louis
understood that a radical reform of the tax system was needed to introduce scal uniformity
across France by eliminating tax exemptions. Yet, he was unable to force the reforms through.
The opposition by the kingdom’s nobility was the rst step in the political revolution that
swept France in 1789. The king might have been sympathetic to the demands of the Third
Estate, but, pressured by his advisers, he delayed his reform plans until after the formation
of the National Assembly in June 1789. Again, he consented to work with the Third Estate,
but provoked the revolt in Paris by dismissing Necker, his nance minister associated in the
public’s mind with reforms.
After the storming of the Bastille on 14 July and the October Days, Louis and his family
were virtual prisoners in the Tuileries Palace. He appeared to be willing to reach some sort
of accommodation with the revolution by playing the part of a constitutional monarch, but
could not accept the religious reforms of the National Assembly. The failed ight of the royal
family and their capture at Varennes in June 1791 sealed his fate. Public opinion gradually
turned against Louis, perhaps recognising that he pursued a policy of passive resistance. The
radicalisation of the popular movement resulted in the storming of the Tuileries Palace on
10 August 1792 and the king’s nal deposition. Before the end of September 1792, France was
declared a republic. The king who never used violence against his subjects was put on trial
and executed on 21 January 1793 for conspiring against ‘public freedom’. dauphin
The title of the heir to the throne of France derived from the province of
the Dauphiné. The word dauphin is French for ‘dolphin’, a reference to the
depiction of the dolphin in the coat of arms of the province
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
Getty Images/Fine Art Images
Queen Marie Antoinette (1755–1793)
Marie Antoinette, born Maria Antonia, was
the youngest daughter of 16 children of Maria
Theresa of Austria (1717–1780) and Francis I
(ruled 1745–65), Holy Roman Emperor. Her parents
were an unconventional couple who married for
love, shared the same bed and raised their children
in an informal family setting. Marie Antoinette
was educated by a French tutor who instructed
her in history, the classics and the arts.
Her marriage to Louis-Auguste, dauphin of
France, sealed a new Franco–Austrian alliance.
When Louis-Auguste became king of France as
Louis XVI in 1774, she became his queen. The
marriage was haunted by enmity towards Marie
Antoinette from all sections of the French public.
Until she gave birth to a daughter and later provided
a dauphin, rumours of her indelity and infertility circulated widely, despite the king’s open
affection towards her in public. In the 1780s, Marie Antoinette became the subject of vilifying,
subversive pamphlets. These pamphlets portrayed her as immoral and self-indulgent, falsely
insinuating that she had lesbian affairs, which eroded the prestige of the monarchy in the
eyes of the public. The disastrous Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ (1785–86) exposed Marie
Antoinette to further public condemnation even though she was innocent of any involvement.
The perception of her extravagance was so legendary that even when rumours were refuted,
the public continued to believe the scandals. She was branded ‘Madame Décit’ and became
the favourite political scapegoat for France’s nancial problems. After 1789, the escalating
revolutionary situation led to her imprisonment and trial. She followed Louis XVI to the
guillotine on 16 October 1793. Her last image, made by painter Jacques-Louis David (1748–
1825), showed her brave and dignied in the tumbrel on the way to her execution.
The marriage of Louis and Marie Antoinette, 1770
In 1770, Louis-Auguste, aged 15, married Marie Antoinette of Austria, aged 14. The marriage
was intended to show the strong alliance between France and Austria. The alliance
was established after the conclusion of the War of Austrian Succession in 1756 and was
orchestrated by the dominant faction at Louis XV’s court, led by the duc de Choiseul. The
marriage was contracted on 19 April 1770 at a ceremony held in Vienna and the young Marie
Antoinette arrived in Versailles on 16 May. On that day, the ofcial wedding was held in the
royal chapel. The celebrations included the reception of the ambassadors, a reworks display
and a lavish party in the royal opera house. The day concluded with the bedding ceremony
(or tumbril)
An open cart
used to deliver
prisoners to
the guillotine
A publication,
ranging from
a single page
to as long
as a book,
which was a
popular way of
political ideas.
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Placeholder photo acknowledgement
The disastrous ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’
The affair of the diamond necklace contributed to
discrediting the queen in the eyes of the French
people, although there was no evidence that
she had done anything wrong. At the centre of
the scandal was the Cardinal de Rohan and the
necklace ordered by Louis XV for his mistress,
Madame du Barry. This jewellery, with an
estimated cost of 2 million livres, never reached
its intended recipient because the king died of
smallpox before it could be delivered.
In 1785, the Cardinal de Rohan hoped to gain
the favour of the queen, but was duped by Jeanne
de la Motte. She pretended to act as a friend of
the queen and convinced the cardinal that the
queen wanted him to negotiate the purchase of the
The basic unit of
currency of France
until 1795. Other units
included the Louis
(gold coin) = 24 livres,
écu (silver coin) =
6 livres = 120 sols,
1 livre = 20 sols,
1 sol = 12 deniers
SOURCE 1.6 A reproduction of the
necklace at the centre of the affair is now
housed in a French museum.
ritual: the young couple was led
into the bedchamber of Marie
Antoinette, the bed was blessed by
the Archbishop of Reims and the
newly married couple went to bed
in the presence of all the Court. The
marriage was not consummated
until 1776, which fuelled gossip
about the sexuality of both Louis
and Marie Antoinette. Historians
and commentators had suggested
that the delay in normal sexual
relations between the couple
was caused variously by a genital
anomaly, a strict religious education
and the immaturity of both parties.
Recently, British historian Derek Beales has argued that the key to the issue was the sexual
ignorance of both parties2. In fact, the couple beneted from advice from the queen’s brother,
Emperor Joseph II. The couple’s rst child was born on 19 December 1778.
Bridgeman Images/Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France
SOURCE 1.5 The wedding of Dauphin Louis-Auguste and Marie
Antoinette at Versailles on 16 May 1770
Bridgeman Images/Archives Charmet
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
necklace and pay for it in instalments. In the end, Jeanne de la Motte’s husband sold
the necklace’s diamonds separately in London. When the payment was not received,
the jeweller approached the queen directly; she rejected the suggestion that she had
ordered and received the necklace. The Cardinal de Rohan was taken to the Bastille
in August 1785, but he was acquitted after a trial in May 1786. Jeanne de la Motte was
branded on each shoulder with a V mark, reserved for thieves, and imprisoned. The
public image of the queen was, however, damaged beyond repair – Marie Antoinette
could do nothing right!
The ‘Affair of the Diamond Necklace’ has become the subject of many novels and
lms. One of the most recent is the 2001 American historical drama
The Affair of the
directed by Charles Shyer. The lavish lm sets and costumes bring to life the
last years of the Bourbon court before the revolution.
When Louis XVI ascended the throne, the territory under his control (excluding overseas
territories) covered 717 944 square kilometres and had a population of more than 28
million inhabitants, which was growing
rapidly. The kingdom extended from
the lowlands of Flanders in the north to
the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean Sea
in the south, from the Atlantic Ocean in
the west to the Rhine River and the Alps
in the east. France also controlled overseas
colonies in Canada, the Caribbean and the
Indian subcontinent. Louis realm had been
built by conquest and dynastic marriages
since the Middle Ages. As recently as 1766,
Louis grandfather, Louis XV, inherited
the Duchy of Lorraine and 20 years later
incorporated the island of Corsica into his
realm. The kingdom was an amalgamation
of provinces that were progressively added,
and the kings of France tended to adapt the
existing institutions of these new territories
rather than develop and impose new
institutions. As a result, each province had
different legal and administrative systems,
and taxes levied at varied rates. This made
Louis XVI’s France a diverse and complex
realm to govern.
SOURCE 1.7 This map illustrates the complexities of the
political, legal and economic system of France on the eve
of the revolution.
Bay of Biscay
Mediterranean Sea
English Channel
Boundary between Généralités
Central customs area
Boundary between regions of common law
and mainly Roman law
Pays d’état
National border
0 150
Territory ruled by a
duke or duchess
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
The Kingdom of France
was not governed by a uniform
set of laws and tax rules, and
its provinces with their major
towns were treated dierently
for tax purposes, with some of
them exempted from direct
In some regions,
local customary laws
governed marriage,
rules of inheritance
and ownership of
property. In northern
provinces, common
law served as the
basis of justice.
In southern
provinces, justice was
administered according
to the code law dating
back to ancient
Seigneurial laws,
existing since the
Middle Ages,
enforced some
feudal rights.
There was no
uniform system of
weights and
The tax burden fell
more heavily
on the northern
The gabelle,
a tax on salt, was levied
at six dierent rates
according to area, but
six regions, including
Brittany, were
almost exempt.
The taille,
a direct land tax
payable by non-nobles,
was levied dierently in
the central and outer
The whole
country was also
divided by customs,
barriers at the gates
of towns, on bridges
and between
dues ranged from
3 per cent to
25 per cent.
SOURCE 1.8 Laws and taxes in pre-revolutionary France
For administrative purposes, the kingdom was divided into 36 généralités, each
governed by an intendant who reported to the Controller-General of Finances. These
administrative units were not uniform in size and their boundaries seldom coincided
with the geographical boundaries of the provinces. In the exercise of the royal authority
the intendants competed with the parlements, the 13 sovereign courts of law. The premier
position among these courts was held by the Parlement of Paris whose jurisdiction covered
a third of the kingdom. Among the prerogatives of the parlements was the registration of
the king’s edicts before they were promulgated as binding laws. To add to this complex
administrative framework, the Roman Catholic Church maintained 18 archiepiscopal
provinces and 136 dioceses across the kingdom. These complex connections and
interdependencies, according to historian William Doyle, were repeated in many different
ways at the town and village level.
The administrative
divisions of France under
the ancien régime, which
served as a framework for
royal administration
Holder of administrative
Laws or royal decrees
enacted by the king on his
own authority
Lamoignon on the principles of the French monarchy, 19 November 1787
This extract is from a speech delivered by Chrêtien-François de Lamoignon (1735–1789) at a sitting of the
Parlement of Paris on 19 November 1787. Lamoignon was the king’s Lord Chancellor who customarily managed
the system of justice.
These principles, universally acknowledged by the entire kingdom, are that the King alone must possess the
sovereign power in his kingdom; that He is answerable only to God in the exercise of his power; that the tie
which binds the King to the Nation is by nature indissoluble; that the interests and reciprocal obligations
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
Louis XVI’s subjects were all members of social groups that, with the exception of the peasants,
claimed certain special rights that set them apart from others. As such, the social structure
of the ancien régime was rigid and built on notions of privilege and precedence. Originating in
the Middle Ages, this structure divided French society into three estates or orders, known as the
First, Second and Third Estates. The First Estate was made up of the clergy of the Roman Catholic
Church. The Second Estate drew its membership from those who were born to a noble father or
who had acquired nobility by the grace of the king. The Third Estate contained everyone else,
those of common birth. Almost every group in 18th-century France could claim some sort of
special privilege, but the most visibly privileged groups were the two so-called privileged orders,
the clergy and the nobility.
The First Estate – the clergy
The clergy of the Roman Catholic Church made up 0.6 per cent of the population. The
169 500 members of the clergy comprised monks and nuns in religious orders, and priests
and curates who ministered to the spiritual needs of lay society.3 The Church was a highly
hierarchical organisation, with archbishops and bishops predominantly from the nobility in
the high ofces, and the priests and curates predominantly commoners. The inuence
enjoyed by the Church had its roots in the monopoly of public worship (97 per cent of
French people were nominally Catholic) and its wealth was largely derived from extensive
landholding, perhaps 10 per cent of the land in France, and the income from a tithe of
10 per cent imposed on farm produce at harvest. The most evident sign of the privileged
status of the First Estate was its total exemption from paying taxes. The Church’s General
Assembly made a voluntary annual grant to the king.
Historically, a tithe was a
compulsory tax paid to the
Roman Catholic Church,
at the rate of one-tenth of
produce at the time of harvest,
and paid in kind, for example
in agricultural products
between the King and his subjects serve only to reassure that union; that the Nation’s interest is that the
powers of its head not be altered; that the King is the chief sovereign of the Nation and everything he
does is with her interests in mind; and that finally the legislative power resides in the person of the King
independent of and unshared with all other powers. These, sirs, are the invariable powers of the French
Monarchy … As a consequence of these principles and of our History, it is clear that the King only has the
right to convoke an Estates-General; that he alone must judge if this convocation is necessary; and that
he needs no other power for the administration of his kingdom.
From a speech by Chrêtien-François de Lamoignon, 19 November 1787
1 What, according to Lamoignon, are the powers of the monarch?
2 To whom is the king accountable?
3 What is the basis of the monarch’s powers?
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
The Second Estate – the nobility
The nobles derived their status as members of the Second Estate by birth (the noblesse
d’épée, nobility of the sword) or by creation or ennoblement (the noblesse de robe, those
raised to nobility by the king either through merit or by the virtue of the ofce). In terms
of social mobility, the creation of more than 4000 venal ofces out of 70 000 opened the
way for wealthy commoners to acquire noble status.4 Historian William Doyle likened the
French nobility to a club that the wealthy among the commoners felt obliged to join.5 He
also noted that while not all nobles were wealthy, most wealthy people, eventually, ended
up becoming nobles. The membership of the nobility offered standing in society that was
beyond the reach of wealth alone and assisted its holders in securing prestige, positions
and privileges. Precisely how many nobles there were in 1789 is debatable. Historian
Peter McPhee estimates that there may have been no more than 25 000 noble families
or 125 000 individual nobles, perhaps 0.4 per cent of the population.6 Historian Peter
Jones agrees with McPhee that 25 000 is an accurate number, and William Doyle uses the
estimate of between 120 000 and 350 000 individuals.7
The nobles owned between a quarter and a third of all the land in France. Their greatest
privilege was exemption from paying the taille and the corvée. The nobles as estate holders
beneted from a number of sources of wealth and power. Notwithstanding great internal
venal ofce
A public ofce or position
sold by the Crown to raise
money. The key ofces
conferred on their holder
personal noble status that
became hereditary, generally
after three generations. This
practice was an important
avenue of social mobility for
the bourgeoisie and a source
of income for the Crown
Bridgeman Images/Château de Versailles, France/De Agostini Picture Library/G. Dagli Orti
SOURCE 1.9 The observance of the strict social hierarchy could be seen in the clothes worn by the members of each
of the estates for the deliberations of the Estates-General. This illustration shows the clothing of the clergy (left), nobility
(centre) and commoners (right).
A direct land tax imposed on
each household and based
on how much land it held
A service of unpaid labour
imposed for the upkeep of
public roads
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
diversity of the nobility, they enjoyed the privilege of rank demonstrated by various insignia of
distinction, the scal and seigneurial privileges, and exclusive employment in a range of ofcial
positions, including the army. As members of the Second Estate, the nobles were seen as
having a ‘vested interest in a highly complex system of status and hierarchy from which came
material privilege and preferment’.8 In their opposition to the reforms sought by King Louis
XVI, many nobles recognised that any signicant changes in France’s political institutions
would most likely result in a decrease in their privileges. While some enlightened nobles
accepted the need for these reforms because they thought of themselves as the natural leaders
of society, most nobles believed that reform was a threat to their position.
The Third Estate – the commoners
The Third Estate included every person who was not a member of the clergy or nobility. Accounting
for about 99 per cent of the French population, the Third Estate was a broadly dened group
that included wealthy merchants, urban workers, peasants and beggars. The wealthiest group
within the Third Estate was the bourgeoisie, mostly living in the towns. They accumulated
their wealth through trade rather than farming. Among them were merchants, bankers,
industrialists, business people, nanciers, landowners, medical professionals, lawyers and
civil servants. As a social group, they were growing in wealth and aspired to advance their
social status in order to become nobility.
Historian George Rudé suggested that there was a growing frustration within the upper
bourgeoisie, particularly those engaged in manufacturing. Rudé illustrates this point by arguing
that the causes of the dissatisfaction were deeply rooted in the structures of the ancien régime.
The expansion of overseas trade and the increase in the consumption of luxury goods were
restricted by the rights and privileges of corporations, feudal landowners and government. In
short, the privilege of a few affected the job market, freedom of trade and thus commerce in
The most populous section of the Third Estate was the peasants, who constituted more
than 80 per cent of the population.10 Across the country they owned about 30 per cent of
the land outright, although this varied between the provinces. They were smallholders,
tenant farmers or sharecroppers; if they did not own or lease their land, they farmed at
subsistence level.11 Their low income depended on yields for grain crops and was subsidised
by working on other people’s land or in the towns. Scarcity of food was a common feature of
peasant life. Among their obligations were feudal seigneurial dues to the lord of the manor
(seigneur), including work on the lord’s land; labour service on the roads (corvée); various
taxes, including the land tax (taille), the salt tax (gabelle), the head tax (capitation) and the
vingtième or twentieth tax; and a tithe to the Church.
Among those of the Third Estate who lived in the towns were urban workers who made their
living working as servants, labourers or industrial workers. Most of them were low skilled and
survived on low wages. The burden of taxes that members of the other estates did not pay fell
heavily on the Third Estate. The quality of life in the lower strata of the Third Estate depended
very much on the price of food; when food prices went up, their lives got harder.
Lord who held seigneurial
privileges, which were
rights over persons and
property attached to
ownership of land granted
by the Crown
Originally meaning ‘the
citizens of a town’; by
1789 the term was used to
describe the middle classes
enlightened nobles
Often referred to as liberal
nobles, members of the
nobility inuenced by the
ideals of the Enlightenment
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
In the 18th century, there was signicant
diversity among the regions of France.
Many local traditions, practices and
loyalties, for example, continued
to inuence the lives of individuals
throughout France. The growth in
population and expansion of the
economy was not matched by reform of
the increasingly outdated feudal structures
in society. By the late 18th century, the
perception of the need for change became
a source of political tension. The nobility,
although fully aware of its privilege, rank
and status, was removed from active
participation in the government of France
by lack of any representative institution
able to inuence the king. The laws and
privileges of the provinces prevented the
creation of a uniform national market,
which frustrated the growing bourgeoisie,
who sought a more rational system of
law, custom duties and taxes as well as a
voice in the governing of the kingdom.
The Third Estate was heavily taxed and
increasingly resentful of the burden of feudal dues and the tithe. The growing disproportion of
wealth and means was not lost on contemporary commentators. French writer Louis-Sébastien
Mercier (1740–1814), for example, observed the increasing disparity in the standard of living
between the rich and the poor and noted that the ostentatious luxury enjoyed by some
prompted bitter resentment among the underprivileged.
The social hierarchy based on the hereditary principle and privilege constrained the social
mobility of the enterprising middle class. The predominance of nobility among the leading
Church appointments and the practice of a few clerics accumulating multiple nancially
rewarding church beneces became a frequent and bitter grievance for lower clergy denied
advancement and prosperity. Expenditure was high among the nobility, who had to compete
for the king’s favour to maintain their position at court, and poorer nobles in particular resented
ennoblement of rich merchants. The rich bourgeoisie was equally insulted to be ranked at the
bottom of the social order as part of the Third Estate along with the peasants and labourers.
The inequity of the system was particularly striking in the scal arrangements: nobles paid
little or no tax as the traditional defenders of the kingdom, but despite their rank they had
little opportunity to inuence the policies of the government. Peasants, urban workers and the
SOURCE 1.10 This is a typical satirical representation of the
burden of the privileged orders carried by the Third Estate. Here, a
woman of the Third Estate carries representatives of the privileged
orders on her back. Note the dress of the three women in this
image. Social distinctions between the three estates were often
maintained by the Second Estate in the ostentatious display of
clothing, which was a guarded privilege.
Getty Images/Photo12/UIG
The act of conferring
nobility and the induction
of an individual into the
Church ofces that
provided ministers with a
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The Estates-General originated in 1302 when
the three estates were summoned to meet
by King Philip IV the Fair. When in session,
the Estates-General formed a consultative
assembly of the Kingdom of France and
comprised the three estates of the realm:
the clergy, the nobility and the commoners.
During a meeting of the Estates-General, the
three estates deliberated in three separate
chambers independently of each other.
The Estates-General never became an
institution and never assumed a role similar
to the English Parliament. Kings of France
summoned the Estates-General only in times
of crisis, and some did not call them at all.
Deputies representing each of the three
estates were elected by the members of the
Estate to which they belonged. Their election
was accompanied by drawing up lists of grievances (
cahiers de doléances
) at meetings
of adult males who elected the deputies. Traditionally, the monarchy would ask the
Estates-General to approve increases in taxes and, in return, pledged to deal with the
issues presented in the lists of grievances. The Estates-General of 1614 ended in asco
and demonstrated how difcult it was to reach consensus between estates when each of
them staunchly defended their rights and showed no inclination for compromise. After
this experience, the Estates-General were not summoned until the fateful decision of
Louis XVI to call their meeting for May 1789 to advise him on the solutions to France’s
nancial problems and endorse scal reform.
In the absence of regular sessions of the Estates-General, their advisory role was
carried out by France’s sovereign law courts, the
. In the decades before
the revolution, the
had obstructed many reforms because the right of
remonstrance allowed them to hold royal authority in check. In the nal years of the
scal crisis, the
refused to agree to the king’s reforms of the taxation system,
arguing that only the Estates-General could consent to it on behalf of the whole nation.
When Louis XVI announced that he would summon the Estates-General, no one,
including the king, knew how exactly the Estates-General were to be assembled. On
23 September 1788, the Parlement of Paris declared that the Estates-General needed to
be organised as they were for the last meeting in 1614. In particular, the deputies of the
Bridgeman Images/Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France
SOURCE 1.11 An engraving depicting the
meeting of the Estates-General in 1614
right of
The power of the
parlements to object to
legislation proposed
by the king and to
seek its review
bourgeoisie, who carried the scal burden of supporting the kingdom, had no control over how
taxes were spent. It was increasingly apparent that in the absence of regular meetings of the
Estates-General neither the privileged order nor the commoners had a representative body to
give them a political voice.
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Corbis/The Gallery Collection
SOURCE 1.12 A painting by Louis Le Nain, Famille de paysans dans un intérieur (Peasant family in their home), 1643
Eighteenth-century France was a rural society. Most of the peasants survived by subsistence
farming, their standard of living dependent on harvest yields and weather: crop failure and
bad weather meant hunger. It is not an overstatement that the majority of peasants earned just
enough to sustain their own existence. Poor harvests were a major reason for rural poverty as they
reduced food supply and inated prices. The testimony of Arthur Young, an English traveller
through France in 1789, is often used to highlight abject poverty of the rural population. Young
described parts of France as backward and poverty-stricken, with farming practices not much
further advanced than that of the Indigenous tribes of North America. At the same time, other
visitors to France reported its progress and development.
three estates were to sit and vote in separate chambers. Nonetheless, Jacques Necker,
the reform-minded minister of Louis XVI, persuaded the king to allow the number of
deputies of the Third Estate to equal the number of the nobility and clergy combined,
to permit the Third Estate to elect deputies from the privileged orders to represent the
commoners, and set the number of the deputies at 1000 at least. In an unprecedented
break with tradition, the king also promised not to impose any tax without the consent
of the Estates-General. These innovations ensured that the outcome of the 1789
elections would be very different from those of 1614.12
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
The inequity of taxation
This contemporary engraving oers a striking illustration of the injustice of the ancien régime based on the
inequalities in political, social and economic standing of the estates. The privileged estates (identifiable by their
form of dress) are depicted standing on top of the rock bearing the names of taxes paid almost exclusively by the
Third Estate.
Bibliothèque nationale de France
SOURCE 1.13 This contemporary image depicts the crushing inequity of the ancien régime in France – the scal privilege.
1 Identify the three figures in the cartoon. How are they represented?
2 Describe the background to the scene and explain its significance.
3 The words written on the rock are those of taxes: Taille, Impôts, Corvées. Explain what each of these taxes was for.
4 What message does this image convey about the burden of taxation in pre-revolutionary France?
5 Symbols, such as clothing, are frequently used in illustrations to convey meaning. Recognising and
understanding these symbols will enable you to analyse and interpret the meaning of other visual sources.
Create a table summarising the symbols used in Sources 1.09, 1.10 and 1.13. As you work through your study
of the French Revolution you will encounter many new symbols, such as the cockade and the revolutionary
bonnet. Add any new symbol and a description of its meaning to your table.
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
2.5 million (9%) bourgeoisie
2.5 million (9%) artisan workers
5.5 million (20%) landowning
farmers and tenant farmers
11 million (39%) sharecropping
5 million (18%) day labourers
1 million (3%) serfs
Second Estate (Nobility)
300000 (1%)
First Estate (Clergy)
200000 (less than 1%)
Third Estate (Commoners)
27.5 million (98%)
SOURCE 1.14 This diagram shows the estimated size of different social and economic groups of the three estates of French society in 1789.
Adapted from JM Thompson, The French Revolution, 1964, p. 83 and P McPhee, The French Revolution, 1789–1799, 2002, p. 13
1 Why were the clergy and the nobility referred to as the privileged orders?
2 Does the information in Sources 1.13 and 1.14 provide an accurate representation of the social structure of
France before 1789?
3 With reference to the sources above, explain in three or four points the position of the Third Estate, or
commoners, in the ancien régime.
New ideas – the Enlightenment
As the 18th century progressed, a range of new ideas emerged that challenged traditional
ideas about how society should be organised. These ideas were often linked to a series of
interrelated economic, social and cultural changes that were undermining the institutional
foundations of the European ancien régimes based on corporate privilege and the authority
of the Church. These new ideas, which coincided with extended, gradual economic and
political change, are referred to by historians as the ‘Enlightenment’. The origins of the
Enlightenment can be traced to scientic discoveries such as the publication of Sir Isaac
Newton’s Principia (1687), which outlined the law of universal gravitation and is regarded
as one of the most important works in the history of science. This intellectual movement
challenged established forms of society, politics and religion by insisting that the world
corporate privilege
Benets derived by certain
groups of society from
a range of laws granting
them different conditions
and treatment from the
rest of society
Population of France in 1789, estimated at 28 million
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
should be understood using reason and logic rather than religion, tradition and superstition.
It spread across Europe and had a particularly strong inuence in France. Order, religious
tolerance, rational thought, criticism and human progress became the key enlightened ideas
propagated by these thinkers. These writers became known as philosophes. By the 1770s, Paris
became the centre of the Enlightenment, but the clever, witty and often satirical and daring
writings of the philosophes spread far and wide across Europe. The spread of their ideas was
partly due to the growth of the reading public and increased affordability of printed text.
The Enlightenment as an intellectual movement was diverse and varied: the philosophes
argued and disagreed on many questions they debated; they changed their opinions; their
intellectual debate was also carried by others, as many novelists, journalists, social thinkers,
scientists and even pornographers thrived on the ideas of freedom, pushing the boundaries of
what was permissible and acceptable.
The term ‘Enlightenment’ became popular and
inuential among educated elites, although each
European nation had its own particular term to
describe the phenomenon. In Germany it was
called the
; in France
des Lumières
; and
in Italy it was known as the
. All these
names mean much the same as the English word,
enlightenment. These terms were used by people
at the time to describe the times in which they
lived, perhaps in recognition that they were living
in a time of great intellectual turmoil.
SOURCE 1.15 Immanuel Kant (1724–
1804), a German philosopher of the
Enlightenment, dared people to think.
Alamy/Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library
FRENCH philosophes
The French word philosophe means ‘philosopher’, but in the context of the Enlightenment it
is used to denote intellectuals, writers and thinkers who critically scrutinised the institutions,
laws and society in general, often challenging established conventions in religion and forms of
behaviour. The philosophes’ approach was empirical – that is, based on evidence and experience –
and sceptical because they questioned established knowledge and examined facts, opinions
and beliefs. It promoted access to human knowledge based on reason, not superstition. For
this reason, the writings of philosophes covered many topics including agricultural techniques,
printing, draining swamps, metalworking and the organisation of society.
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
Among the most inuential French philosophes were Montesquieu, Voltaire and Jean-Jacques
Rousseau. The writings of these key thinkers, although they disagreed on many points, created a
new language to discuss and dene new understandings about how society should be ruled and
organised. They also shaped the values and beliefs of revolutionaries who lead the transformation
of France after 1789.
Montesquieu (1689–1755)
Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu is usually known
simply as Montesquieu. In his masterwork, The Spirit of Laws
(1748), Montesquieu contrasted the British system of government
with the absolutist system of France. By highlighting Britain’s
constitutional monarchy, where the power was shared between the
king and the parliament, Montesquieu criticised the French system,
which was kept from becoming despotic only by the activity of
such ‘intermediate bodies’ as the parlements. Montesquieu’s ideas
were subsequently reworked and simplied to promote the notion
that France needed independent institutions capable of limiting the
power of the king and his ministers. Montesquieu also advocated
religious tolerance and criticised the use of torture.
Mary Evans Picture Library/CAGP/Iberfoto
absolutist system
A system of
government in which
the monarch is the
ultimate authority
of state
The Spirit of Laws, 1748
In The Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu proposed a system of government based on the ‘separation of powers’, in which
a system of checks and balances is established to prevent any form of arbitrary power to dominate others.
In every government there are three sorts of power: the legislative; the executive in respect to things
dependent on the law of nations; and the judicial in regard to matters that depend on the civil law.
By virtue of the first power, the prince or magistrate enacts temporary or perpetual
laws, and amends or abrogates those that have been already enacted. By the second,
he makes peace or war, sends or receives embassies, establishes the public security,
and provides against invasions. By the third, he punishes criminals, or determines the
disputes that arise between individuals ...
The political liberty of the subject is a tranquillity of mind arising from the opinion
each person has of his safety. In order to have this liberty, it is requisite the government be so constituted
as one man need not be afraid of another.
When the legislative and executive powers are united in the same person, ... there can be no liberty;
because apprehensions may arise, lest the same monarch or senate should enact tyrannical laws, to execute
them in a tyrannical manner.
Again, there is no liberty, if the judiciary power be not separated from the legislative and executive.
Were it joined with the legislative, the life and liberty of the subject would be exposed to arbitrary control;
for the judge would be then the legislator. Were it joined to the executive power, the judge might behave
with violence and oppression.
Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of Laws, Book 11, Chapter 6, 1748.
To repeal or revoke or
overturn, usually a law,
right or formal agreement
SOURCE 1.16 Montesquieu
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
Voltaire (1694–1778)
Voltaire was a poet, playwright and pamphleteer.
In the period when French works were read by
educated people throughout Europe, Voltaire was
widely regarded as the foremost literary gure
in France. Like Montesquieu, he thought that
the British parliamentary system had much to
recommend it. He aimed his sharpest criticism at
religious superstition, intolerance and fanaticism.
Voltaire denounced injustice and intolerance;
however, he questioned the ability of uneducated
ordinary people to make sound political decisions
and favoured an enlightened absolutist monarchy.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
Rousseau was Swiss by birth but lived much
of his life in France. He wrote on a variety of
topics, including music, political philosophy and
literature. His ideas had great inuence in France,
especially during the revolution. In The Social
Contract (1762), Rousseau advanced the idea of
‘general will’, suggesting that all people have a right
to have their opinion heard. Yet it is unlikely that
Rousseau’s book was widely read before 1789, and
questions have been raised about whether Rousseau
was indeed so inuential. Certainly, Rousseau
did explore his ideas in his bestselling novels,
and his books were banned and even publicly
burned. Among the future revolutionaries who
acknowledged that they were heavily inuenced
by Rousseau’s ideas was the revolutionary leader
Maximilien Robespierre.
1 What is Montesquieu’s idea of the separation of powers?
2 What types of power does Montesquieu identify and how do they dier?
3 What are the basic moral and political justifications of this system of government?
4 What might dierent groups in French society have thought of these ideas?
Mary Evans Picture Library
SOURCE 1.17 Voltaire
The Bridgeman Art Library/Musee Antoine Lecuyer, Saint-Quentin, France/Giraudon
SOURCE 1.18 Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idea of social contract was influenced by a
number of writers such as the Englishmen John Locke and Thomas
Hobbes. Rousseau’s The Social Contract was, however, relatively unknown
until the outbreak of revolution in 1789. Only after 1789 was it suddenly
treated as a founding text of the revolution.
The problem is to find a form of association which will defend and protect
with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and
in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone,
and remain as free as before …
This, however, is not the case with the relation of the subjects to the
Sovereign. They, despite the common interest, would have no security that
[the Sovereign] would fulfil his undertakings, unless their subjects found
means to assure themselves of their fidelity.
In fact, each individual, as a man, may have a particular will contrary or
dissimilar to the general will which he has as a citizen. His particular interest
may speak to him quite dierently from the common interest. His absolute
and naturally independent existence may make him look upon what he owes
to the common cause as a gratuitous contribution, the loss of which will do
less harm to others than the payment of it is burdensome to himself ... He
may wish to enjoy the rights of citizenship without being ready to fulfil the duties of a subject ...
In order then that the social contract may not be an empty formula, it tacitly includes the undertaking,
which alone can give force to the rest, that whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled
to do so by the whole body. This means nothing less than that he will be forced to be free; for this is the
condition which, by giving each citizen to his country, secures him against all personal dependence. In this
lies the key to the working of the political machine; this alone legitimises civil undertakings, which, without
it, would be absurd, tyrannical, and liable to the most frightful abuses.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book 1, Chapter 6 and Book 1, Chapter 7.
1 Explain your understanding of Rousseau’s concept of the social contract.
2 In your opinion, what implications did it have for political systems and the structure of society?
SOURCE 1.19 The title page of Jean-
Jacques Rousseau’s Considérations sur
le gouvernement de Pologne (Thoughts
on the government of Poland). In this
book Rousseau applied the ideas of
the social contract to constitutional
reform. Rousseau himself feared social
upheaval, but his ideas took on a new
meaning in 1789 when the French
people found themselves facing the
challenge of establishing a new political
system. The readership of Rousseau’s
works increased after the revolution
began and he became an icon for the
revolutionary leaders, who claimed his
authority for their doctrines.
The ideas of Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau were to a large degree reected in the Encyclopédie,
a work of 17 volumes edited by Jean d’Alembert and Denis Diderot and published between 1751
and 1765. The contributors to the Encyclopédie presented a full range of human knowledge by
applying the critical and rational approach of the Enlightenment to many aspects of society.
Over the course of the second half of the 18th century, the philosophes enjoyed growing inuence
and acceptance. This trend was, as historian David Garrioch writes, a result of the secularisation of
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
both politics and French society. Their ideas were spreading among the literate public who prided
themselves on being ‘enlightened’. As some of these ideas were no longer seen as radical, it meant
they were entering the mainstream. The success of the philosophes in presenting themselves as staunch
opponents of despotism persuaded many of the French revolutionaries to claim them as precursors.
Among historians there is much debate both about how far the philosophes and their ideas undermined the ancien régime
and influenced the development of the revolution. The issue is not so straightforward even though the revolutionaries often
referred to the philosophes as their precursors in the opposition to absolutism and despotism. The idea that the Enlightenment
was the direct cause of the French Revolution was rejected by historian William Doyle. On the other hand, historian Sarah
Maza argued that it is undeniable that Voltaire’s extremely witty comments on the Church, Montesquieu’s cautions about
the dangers of despotism and the publication of a voluminous Encyclopédie containing many sacrilegious ideas, contributed to
lowering respect for the institutions of the ancien régime among readers. Historian Robert Darnton added to this debate by
revealing in his writings that the French mostly bought satirical and pornographic pamphlets targeting the royal family, which in
the years preceding the revolution further destroyed the aura of divine right. All these arguments are perhaps best summarised
by Peter McPhee, who asserted that the acceptance of the ideals of the Enlightenment was a symptom of a crisis of authority.
For David Garrioch, the key influence of the Enlightenment was its impact on the 18th-century reading public.
The writers and thinkers disseminated their ideas in plays, novels and pamphlets, through the Encyclopédie, reviews
and articles reaching a wide audience even if their more theoretical works were little read. Above all, states Garrioch,
the key factor in the impact of the philosophes was the networks they established through correspondence, which
facilitated the exchange of ideas between intellectuals and educated elites.
The philosophes influenced not only the elites of France, but also the rest of the world, which was dominated at the
time by Europe and North America. Economic, political, legal and social reforms were seen as necessary and often
enacted by ministers and bureaucrats. The enlightened bishops acted against ‘superstition’ by promoting education
and empowerment of individuals. Over time, these changes created a climate within which the new ideas became
acceptable and they encouraged others to consider issues that had not previously been publicly debated.
One-third of the French were literate.
(William Doyle)
ere was a great demand for newspapers,
magazines, dictionaries and encyclopaedias.
(Robert Palmer)
Cultural crisis allowed the break with
tradition, enabling the growth of recognition
of civic behaviour perceived as virtuous.
(Daniel Roche)
e ‘citizen-nobles’ who fought in the
American War of Independence were
inuenced by its ideals, making them the
‘rst revolutionaries’. (Simon Schama)
e ideas of the philosophes were not only
widely disseminated but captivated an eager
reading public. (George Rudé)
e achievement of the philosophes was to
challenge received wisdom and to provide a
new language with which to discuss matters
that were previously either not considered
or were debated only in religious terms or in
court circles. (David Garrioch)
e common political vocabulary expands
to include such terms as ‘citizen’, ‘general
will’, ‘nation’, ‘social contract’, and ‘the
rights of man’. (George Rudé)
e Enlightenment undermined the
ideological foundations of the established
order and strengthened the bourgeoisie’s
consciousness of itself as a class.
(Albert Soboul)
Soboul’s claim is incorrect – the Parisian
bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century did not
have a sense of belonging to a class dened by
similar interest and viewpoint. (David Garrioch)
Some readers bought Rousseau’s novels but the
majority preferred works of exposing scandal
and political pornography. (Robert Darnton)
historians dEbatE: did thE
philosophes haVE an audiEncE?
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
‘Spirit of America’ – European volunteers and the
American War of Independence (1775–1783)
Parisians were greatly interested in the revolt of the American colonies against Britain.
In particular, after the American agent Silas Deane arrived in France in 1776 to lobby
the French for aid. Deane was involved in recruiting ofcers and engineers and sourcing
supplies to support the rebellion. The rst foreign volunteers, writes historian Adam
Zamoyski, were French. Ofcially, France maintained its neutrality, but some of the
French ofcers who desired glory on the battleeld, or had little chance of advancement
in the French Army, enlisted to help the Americans. Perhaps the best example is
Lafayette, who had no hope of gaining meaningful military experience as a soldier in
peacetime. For historian Simon Schama, Lafayette’s American experiences not only
exposed him to the ideals of ‘Liberty, Equality and the pursuit of Happiness’, but also
positively instilled the ‘spirit of America’ in his psyche. Lafayette and other returning
European volunteers who had served in the American War of Independence spread the
ideas of liberty and popular sovereignty.
Adam Zamoyski maintains that the American revolt was seen by Europeans as a
‘dramatic condemnation of the evils of Europe’ and echoes earlier assessment of French
historian Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote in 1835 that ‘the Americans appeared to be
doing no more than carrying out what our writers had conceived’. Indeed, Tocqueville
suggests a direct link between the ideas of the
and the revolutionary action.
The American rebellion demonstrated to the world that there was an alternative to the
ancien régime and, even more signicantly, it was within reach.
Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834)
Lafayette was a volunteer who served on the side of the
rebels during the American War of Independence (1775–
1783). He was inuenced by the ideas of the Enlightenment
and was one of the liberal nobles who recognised the
need for reform. During the Assembly of Notables in 1787,
Lafayette supported summoning the Estates-General.
He was elected as a Second Estate deputy and in July
1789, due to his popularity with the Parisian crowds, was
acclaimed the commander of the newly formed National
Guard. His actions perhaps saved Marie Antoinette during
the dramatic October Days of 1789. He supported the
constitutional monarchy and lost all public support after
the royal family’s ight to Varennes in 1791 when he
ordered the shooting of unarmed demonstrators at the Champ de Mars. He commanded an
army in the war against Austria, but in 1792 he defected to Austria and was imprisoned until
1797. On Lafayette’s release, Napoleon allowed him to return to live on his estates in France.
Getty Images/Imagno
to defect
To leave
one's country
and take up
residence in
another; or
to abandon
a position or
often to join
a rival group
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
Reform, bankruptcy and the
aristocratic revolt
Throughout the second half of the 18th century, the king’s government recognised that in order
to maintain its international standing and meet its domestic obligations the king needed more
revenue. The issue of changing the level of taxes, broadening their base and the manner of their
collection illustrated the institutional problems facing the monarchy. In theory, the king as an
absolute monarch had no need to negotiate with any representative body before he collected
traditional taxes and maintained the right to do so without going through any consultative
process; he was the sole legislator because the law emanated from him as the sovereign. The
process was facilitated by the limited role of the Estates-General, which successive French rulers
did not convene after 1614. This prerogative of an absolute ruler had a signicant weakness:
there was no regular mechanism for negotiating an increase in taxes as the kingdom’s needs grew.
Added to this problem was the issue of an awkward and inefcient system of tax collection. Tax
farmers, usually wealthy entrepreneurs, paid the treasury a set fee for the right to collect taxes
in a given region, which resulted in several different tax-collection regimes that could not be
coordinated or managed to deal with the royal income uctuations.
1740–48 War of the Austrian Succession: France gave back its European conquests and recovered some lost
overseas possessions
1756–63 Seven Years’ War: France was deprived of many of its colonies and burdened with a heavy war debt
1776 Jacques Necker joined the government as Director-General of Finances to try to solve the financial
problems of the Crown
1778 France oered support to rebels in the American War of Independence (1775–1783), increasing its
financial obligations
1781 Necker resigned from the government after presenting his financial report to the king
1783 American War of Independence ended with the Treaty of Versailles
Calonne succeeded Necker and was charged with solving the growing financial problems
1786 Calonne presented the king with a proposal to reform France’s fiscal system
FEBRUARY Louis XVI convened the Assembly of Notables to discuss and agree to the new taxation proposal.
The Assembly was dismissed after refusing to agree to the king’s demands
Calonne was dismissed and replaced by Brienne, who failed to negotiate the passage of the reforms
though the parlements
3 MAY The Parlement of Paris proclaimed that new taxes can only be imposed by agreement with the
Resistance of the nobles in the Assembly of Notables and the parlements to the reforms proposed by
Louis XVI was supported by urban crowds who revolted against the king’s authority
AUGUST Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General to meet in May 1789 and ordered elections of its
deputies together with compilation of the cahiers de doléances of each of the estates
The origins of the revolution
Chapter 1
During the second half of the 18th century there were repeated efforts to increase taxes and make
the French economy more productive, but royal ministers had come to realise that partial reform
was inadequate and they had begun to propose sweeping reforms of the scal system. For example,
in 1776, Jacques Turgot tried to open up France’s economy by pursuing a number of free-market
policies, but popular protests and opposition from the parlements defeated him. He realised the true
state of the royal nances and warned that ‘the rst gunshot will drive the state to bankruptcy’,
arguing against France’s participation in another war.
Turgot’s successor, Jacques Necker, a Swiss banker, tried to save money by abolishing some 506
venal ofces, with a saving of about 2.5 million livres a year, and improving tax collection.13 In the
spirit of the Enlightenment, Necker also introduced representative assemblies to give provincial
public opinion some voice in administration and at the same time to offset the power of the
parlements. In February 1781, Necker caused a sensation by publishing his Compte rendu, a summary
of the government’s income and expenses. This gave the public more information than it had ever
had before and publicised the seemingly prosperous state of France’s nances. Necker claimed that
existing taxes were more than sufcient to cover normal expenditures, but he did not disclose the
size of the loans that had nanced the French support for the American War of Independence; by
May 1781, he raised 520 million livres in loans. Simon Schama describes Necker’s claims as:
… exactly the kind of spurious good cheer that led the French monarchy down the
primrose path to perdition.
Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, Penguin, London, 1989, p. 89.
Schama acknowledged, however, that Necker was not only a prudent, but a determined
reformer who, like Turgot before him, recognised that France’s prosperity depended on its
economy developing without restraints. Necker concentrated on achieving direct savings by
rationalising the administration and streamlining the revenue. Yet, the Compte rendu became
Necker’s downfall. He trusted that the public support would enable him to be promoted to the
king’s council from which his Protestant faith excluded him. When Louis XVI refused, Necker
resigned. The effects of the Compte rendu were to be felt in the years to come. Whenever the
king’s ministers highlighted the Crown’s nancial difculties, concluded William Doyle, the
public would distrust any proposed countermeasures, remembering that nances had been
under control in Necker’s time. In fact, the state of the Crown’s nances became so identied
with him that his resignation caused a substantial loss of public condence.
Necker on nances of the state
Compte rendu au Roi,
February 1781
Having devoted all my time and my strength in the service of Your Majesty since you appointed me to this
position, it is important for me to give you some public explanations concerning ... the actual state of the
Finances. I would have renounced to the satisfaction of … explaining my behaviour, if I had not thought that
by doing so, all this [information] could have been very useful to Your Majesty’s aairs. Such an institution
[the publication of the annual budget], if it became permanent, would be the source of the most important
THE FrEncH rEvoluTion
advantages because the obligation to publicly show his administration would influence a Finance Minister
from the first steps in his career. Darkness and obscurity favour nonchalance … This report would also allow
each of the people – who are part of Your Majesty’s Councils – to study and follow the situation of the
Finances … Such an institution [the publication of the annual budget] could have the greatest influence
on public confidence. In fact, if one fixes his attention on the huge credit England enjoys … where each
year this state [of the finances] is presented to the Parliament, and then it is printed. And all the lenders
who regularly know the proportion that is maintained between incomes and expenses are not troubled
by suspicions and fanciful fears, which are always part of darkness. In France, the state of Finances has
always been a mystery. If sometimes somebody talked about it, it was only in the preambles of edicts
and always only when money had to be borrowed. But these words, too often the same to be true, have
necessarily lost their authority, and men of experience only believe in it because of the moral nature of
the Finance Minister. It is important to found confidence on more solid bases …
The sovereign of a kingdom such as France
can always, when he wants, maintain the balance
between ordinary expenses and incomes. The
reduction of expenses – which is always the
wish of the public – belongs to the King. When
circumstances require, only he has the power to
increase taxes. But the most dangerous, as well
as the fairest of resour