<Standard WHII.2...........................................................................................................................Standard WHII.4>

Explain the causes of The French Revolution

La prise de la Bastille, painting by Charles Thévenin, 1793
La prise de la Bastille, painting by Charles Thévenin, 1793

Topics on the Page

A. the effect of Enlightenment political thought
B. the influence of the American Revolution
C. economic troubles and the rising influence of the middle class
D. government corruption and incompetence

A. the role of the Estates General and the National Assembly
B. the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789
  • Women's March on Versailles, October 5, 1789
C. the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen
  • Declaration of the Rights of Women and of the Female Citizen
    • Olympe de Gouge
D. the execution of Louis XVI in 1793
E. the Terror
F. the rise and fall of Napoleon
G. the Congress of Vienna

MAP.jpgAP World History Key Concept 5.3

Focus Question: What were the important causes of the French Revolution?

The image to the right shows a Deck of Cards Dating Back to the French Revolution Where Kings Have Been Replaced With Wise Men (Solo, Plato, Cato, & Brutus), and Queens With Virtues (Justice, Union, Prudence, & Force)

external image FrenchRevolutionaryCardDeck.jpg
Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.47.54 AM.pngClick to view Liberty, Equality, Fraternity , an interactive website on the French Revolution from George Mason University.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngFor a timeline, see The French Revolution, 1789-1795

Female_Rose.pngClick to read Petition of Women of the Third Estate to the King (1789)

Women's March on Versailles, October 5, 1789

Read about Marie Antoinette who helped provoke the popular unrest that led to the French Revolution and overthrow of the monarchy. Also take a look at Marie Antoinette's last letter.

primary_sources.PNGStanislas Maillard Describes the Women's March to Versailles (October 5, 1789)

Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, 1830
Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, 1830

lgbtflag.jpg Biography on Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès, an openly gay French statesman; thought to have played a pivotal role in decriminalizing homosexuality in France

Multimedia.pngTo view two lectures on the French Revolution and Napoleon, see the Open Yale University course lessons:

Robespierre and the French Revolution

Crash Course on the French Revolution - Worth noting that this video confuses the 1st and 2nd Estates

Ted-Ed video on the causes of the French Revolution

Songs and Films on the French Revolution

  • Includes the text of La Marseillaise and clips from the movies Danton (1982), La Marseillaise (1938), and A Tale of Two Cities (1935)

external image Red_apple.jpg

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngFor a Young Adult historical fiction book, see Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly (2011). Click here for the Readers' Guide with many activities for the classroom.

A) Enlightenment Thought

  • Questioning of traditional powers such as religion and monarchy- power to the citizens
  • a universe governed by natural law rather than random chaos

Several philosophies came out of the Enlightenment that inspired French political thought on the eve of the revolution.Perhaps most important was the
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1753
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1753
idea that reason and logic should be applied to human affairs.
  • When citizens began thinking about ways to improve their social and governmental systems, they often rejected traditional ideas of Absolutist monarchs ruling by Divine Right,
    • Generally, the new philosophies called for human rights, liberty, freedom, equal protection under the law, popular sovereignty, and rule only by consent of the governed.
    • In addition, the focus of the French Revolution showcased a greater emphasis on the secular domain at the expense of religious institutions.

Some Enlightenment philosophers whose ideas likely influenced the French Revolution include John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire.
  • While Montesquieu believed in retaining the monarchy and many privileges of the nobility, his ideas about a limited and checked monarch, rather than an absolutist one, were influential among the earlier and more moderate revolutionaries. Click here for a biography on Montesquieu.
  • Just like their counterparts in America, the French Revolution used Locke's idea of every man's right to life, liberty, and property. Click here to read a biography on John Locke.
    • The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man states, "The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression."
  • Rousseau's ideas about the Social Contract, whereby rulers rule only with the consent of the governed, were perhaps the most influential ideas in the Revolution's later phases, where it was clear the monarchs were not interested in limiting their power. Click here for a biography on Rousseau.
    • Rousseau's idea gave the people near complete popular sovereignty to make decisions regarding their own government; a very radical idea at the time. Edmund Burke, a contemporary English statesman and political philosopher (and opponent of the Revolution) wrote in 1790 that Rousseau was the chief ideologue of the French Revolution.
  • Voltaire, along with Rousseau, was one of the most influential French intellectuals of the 18th century. He was a strong defender of freedom of all kinds; freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and freedom of expression. Click here for a biography of Voltaire
    • He also was a sharp critic of the Catholic Church and all religious authority, ideas echoed in many French Revolutionaries' rejection of Church authority. While Voltaire prized freedom, he did believe in a kind of "enlightened despotism", whereby a powerful monarch expressed the values of reason of science. This idea was very influential on Napoleon Bonaparte at the conclusion and in the aftermath of the Revolution.

Multimedia.pngClick here for a History Today article about the influence of these Enlightenment philosophers on the French Revolution

primary_sources.PNGMapping the Republic of Letters shows the web of Enlightenment Thought. An article on the same.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a Prezi presentation on Enlightenment influence on the French Revolution
Multimedia.pngHere is a short video explaining the main ideas of enlightenment thought.

Click here for an interesting article on ideology and the French Revolution.

B) Influence of the American Revolution (see USI.2)

The American Revolution preceded the French Revolution by about 12 years, and its events and rhetoric certainly did inspire many in France.
  • Like the French, American colonists were also inspired by Enlightenment anti-monarchist ideals, particularly those of the English philosopher John Locke.
    • The commonality between the revolutions' goals and ideals can be seen by comparing the American Declaration of Independence (1776) with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (1789).
      • They contain many similar declarations, such as all men being born free, and having the right to life and liberty. Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the American Declaration, had been in France himself for parts of the Revolution, and saw the events as a continual forwarding of the American Revolutionary philosophy (see article below).

The French had participated in the American Revolution, fighting on the side of the colonists.
  • At some points they gave significant and decisive aid, particularly in naval battles. French participation may have made more French citizens think more about the ideals espoused by many American Revolutionaries, but their participation was still heavily supported by the French monarchy.
    • France wanted to see a failure in the English overseas empire, particularly in the wake of their defeat to England in the Seven Years' War.

Perhaps ironically, French aid to the Americans contributed to the financial downfall of the French monarchy.
  • Helping the colonists took a heavy toll on an already depleted government budget, and the colonists' triumph brought little back to France beyond spite at the English failure. As J.M. Roberts says in his History of Europe, "The cost of France's participation in the American Revolutionary War against her old rival had made a crushing addition to the monarchy's financial burdens. For no important gain except the humiliation of the British, France had added yet another layer to the huge and accumulating debt piled up by efforts of its rulers since the 1630s to build and maintain European supremacy." (Roberts pg. 349)
    • The French government's perpetual lack of funds and eventual bankruptcy certainly did not help the monarchy's cause in the face of upcoming events.

primary_sources.PNGThomas Jefferson and the French Revolution An article documenting Jefferson's experiences and impressions of the French Revolution.

  • Click here for an AP World History presentation comparing the American and French Revolutions.

  • PBS lesson plan on the influence of the American Revolution on the French Revolution.

The Palace of Versailles in 1722, shortly after Louis XIV's death.  Extravagant projects like this depleted the French government's financial resources
The Palace of Versailles in 1722, shortly after Louis XIV's death. Extravagant projects like this depleted the French government's financial resources

C) Economic Troubles and the Rise of the Middle Class

Louis XIV (see WHII.1) had left France with a tremendous amount of debt, due in part to his lavish personal expenses.
  • The tremendous money spent on public works projects that benefited only the monarch himself, like the Palace of Versailles, were justified by the "Absolutist" ruling philosophy, yet extremely draining to the French nation.
  • Lavish expenses from the monarchs continued under Louis XV and Louis XVI, and it was further compounded by the Seven Years' War and French aid to the American Revolutionary War (see above). King Louis XVI tried to enact a law that would have made nobility have to pay tax but it was struck down.
    • This left France in tremendous debt, but the tax burden to pay this debt fell entirely on the middle and lower classes, who did not feel responsible for it.
    • The middle class at this time, made up of merchants and others who had risen above the level of peasant, was growing in number and in education, making them a much more powerful force than they had been in the past. With both the nobility and the Church exempt from taxation, they felt their shouldering of the tax burden was very unfair.

This placed what was always a recipe for class tension at the forefront.
  • The lower and middle classes, not the upper classes (and certainly not the nobles/monarchs) had to bear a large tax burden which they felt was largely the result of upper class incompetence.
  • The picture was compounded by France's rising population, stagnant agricultural production, and weather-related famines in the late 1780s, all of which left many without a reliable or affordable food source. All of these economic burdens pushed people to be ready to fight for change.
    • 80% of the lower class lived in rural areas where most worked as tenants for the nobility or rich members of the third estate.
The French Revolution: An economic crisis

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan that gives students an understanding of how the lower classes felt leading up to the French Revolution

Portrait of Louis XVI, 1788
Portrait of Louis XVI, 1788

D) Government Corruption and Incompetence

A major problem in France was government corruption, particularly by its "Absolutist" monarchs.
  • Louis XIV, French King from 1643 to 1715, is often considered the archetypical Absolutist Monarch. These monarchs held literally absolute power; whatever they said became government policy.
    • They generally saw their authority as coming directly from the Christian God, and saw their mission in ruling as reflecting the wishes of God. Louis XIV was succeeded by his son Louis XV, and then his grandson Louis XVI was king in the era of the French Revolution.

While these monarchs claimed to be ruling directly from God, citizens questioned whether the decisions they made were truly in France’s best interests.
  • Louis XIV in particular was known for spending huge amounts of public money on lavish public works projects which only benefited himself.
  • The Palace of Versailles, built from the 1660s to the 1710s and meant to house Louis XIV and future kings, is the most commonly cited example.
    • It was built in four installments, all of which cost huge sums of money, and yet offered no benefit to anyone outside the royal family.
    • People were fed up with their tax dollars being spent inefficiently. They were also upset that they had no say over the decisions that affected their lives. The Monarch couldn’t help the people of France through their economic crises and hunger was rampant.

Blog post on Marie Antoinette's "let them eat cake". Rather informal, but a fun read.

E) Political and Social Inequalities

France still practiced feudalism in the 18th century.
  • The nobles and clergy enjoyed special privileges like not having to pay taxes.
  • The common people did not have power and freedom in politics. They worked hard and had to pay heavy taxes.
    • The nobles and clergy made up the First and Second Estates in the Estates General.
    • The common people {i.e. the middle class (bourgeoisie), peasants and artisans} made up the Third Estate.
  • The nobles and clergy could outvote the common people easily by a two-one margin. In any event, the Estates General (a parliamentary meeting of all three Estates to decide government matters through a simple vote) was rarely called as the King of France was an absolute monarch. The common people became discontented with the privileged classes.

In France, which was a major result of the French Revolution?
  1. the king was restored to unlimited power
  2. the clergy dominated government
  3. the middle class gained political influence
  4. the tax burden was carried by the lower class

Correct answer: 3

F) Bankruptcy of the Government

Louis XIV had spent too much money. His successors did not cut down expenses.
The Palace of Versailles is one example of Louis XIV's extravagant spending. It started as a hunting lodge, but underwent renovations and additions to make it the 700 room palace. It has been estimated that the cost of the palace was over 2 billion dollars in today's terms. To read more about the extravagant Versailles, click here.

Multimedia.pngChateau de Versailles
Website of the modern Palace of Versailles, as a tourist attraction. Gives many useful pictures and links dedicated to the Palace's history.

Louis XVI also failed to improve the financial situation. He dismissed ministers who tried to introduce financial reforms. By 1789, the government was bankrupt.

G) Outbreak of revolution 1789

When Louis XVI finally called the Estates General to solve financial difficulties, the Third Estate did not agree with the unfair system of the Estates General. They formed the National Assembly to make a constitution. People were afraid that the king would suppress the National Assembly. They were also discontented that the king dismissed Necker, the popular Finance Minister. The hungry Parisians, who suffered from bad harvest, burst out their anger by attacking the Bastille prison ( freeing seven political prisoners and seizing a cache of weapons and ammunition). The Fall of Bastille started the French Revolution, then it spread out to other parts of France.

Click here for a video on the French Revolution. This video is broken up into 4 different parts.

For more causes of the Revolution click here
  • Click here for images and essays on depictions of the revolutionary crowd.

Focus Question: What were the important events of the French Revolution?

timeline2_rus.svg.pngComprehensive Timeline of the French Revolution

external image 200px-Hebrew_timeline.svg.pngView a timeline of the important events of the French Revolution

Map icon.pngView a map of France during the French Revolution
  • This map details the area of France during the revolution and includes the areas that were revolting in 1793 as well as the cities that joined with Paris in 1789.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on important events during the French Revolution

A) The Estates General and the National Assembly

The Estates General was the legislative body of France, consisting of three "estates": the clergy, the nobility, and everybody else in France.
  • In 1789, it was a relic of past years, last meeting in 1614 (Roberts pg. 350).
    • It was outside the previously dominant Absolutist political philosophy, where the King made decisions without consulting the legislature.
  • In 1789 King Louis XVI was forced to summon the Estates General due to the serious and impending economic crisis. As mentioned above, rising population, food shortages, and government bankruptcy had led to widespread starvation.
    • The three estates couldn’t come to a decision about how to deal with the crisis in France.
      • In the end, the Third Estate (the common people) broke off and called themselves the National Assembly. The National Assembly claimed that it most legitimately represented the French people.
        • On June 20, 1789, the Third Estate establishes the Tennis Court Oath (depicted below) which would meet "until the constitution of the kingdom is established and consolidated upon solid foundations."

Jacques-Louis David - The Oath of the Tennis Court
Jacques-Louis David - The Oath of the Tennis Court

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan that includes the Estates General and the Tennis Court Oath

Storming the Bastille on July 14, 1789

B) The Storming of the Bastille

The poor people in Paris had been gathering together to protest their lack of food. In July of 1789 a rumor spread that the King’s army was going to attack them to quell the protest. The people decided that they needed weapons to resist such an attack. This motivated them to storm the Parisian prison known as the Bastille and take the weapons they thought were there. They were met by armed guards (consisting of invalides - French soldiers who were incapable of serving in the field - who fired into the crowd and killed almost 100 people. The people continued to fight until the prison surrendered. In spite of the fact that the Bastille met with their demands for surrender, rioters killed several guards and beheaded the governor of the Bastille, parading their heads on spikes.

The map details French territory during the French Revolution and displays the areas that were in revolt in 1793. The map also highlights, using red dots, the cities that joined with Paris for the revolution in 1789.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the storming of the Bastille

Women's March to Versailles

C) Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen

primary_sources.PNGIn August of 1789 the National Assembly wrote the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a revolutionary document that emphasized Enlightenment ideals. It argued that all men should be treated equally under the law. It also advocated popular sovereignty (the election of ruling officials).

Speech Denouncing the New Conditions of Eligibility, Robespierre, October 22, 1789.

Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen, 1795.

lessonplan.jpgClick here for an activity on the Declaration of Rights and Duties of Man and Citizen

Slavery during the French Revolution During the French Revolution the French colony of Saint Domingue now known as Haiti lead the first successful slave revolt in the new world. It started during the national assembly when representatives were sent to Paris to try and secure the freedom and rights of slaves. After the National assembly capitulated and gave rights to free blacks most plantation owners ignored it which sparked a large rebellion which was successful.Fighting went on between France and the former slaves for a long time until the new French government outlawed slavery on February 4th 1794. During Napoleon's rule he reinstated slavery in French colonies.

Portrait de Marie Olympe de Gouges
Portrait de Marie Olympe de Gouges

Female_Rose.pngDuring this period of great liberalism, some elite women began to take decisive action proclaiming their rights. One such woman, Marie Olympe de Gouges, issued her own proclamation, aptly named Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen.

Like most outward progressives at the time, de Gouges would later face the guillotine under the Robespierre’s reign of terror in 1793.

Female_Rose.pngWomen played an important role in the French Revolution. Women used the revolution as a platform for their own rights.

D) Execution of Louis XVI

Between 1789 and 1793 the National Assembly took over France. They argued in favor of a constitutional monarchy and placed Louis XVI under arrest. He was later tried for treason, found guilty, and beheaded in January 1793.

lessonplan.jpgLink here for resources on the execution of Louis XVI
primary_sources.PNGTo look at some primary sources exploring the execution of Louis XVI, click here or here

E) The Reign of
The Execution of Robespierre
Terror (1793-1794)

Began immediately after the execution of King Louis XVI. Louis XVI was not the only noble who met his fate at the guillotine. When Maximilien Robespierre took control of the National Assembly he made it his mission to rid France of all those who had opposed the Revolution. Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety found all those with anti-revolutionary sentiment and imprisoned or killed them. He also eventually turned on revolutionaries who didn’t support his policies. Robespierre’s Reign of Terror ended when people had had enough of the killings resulting in his own demise in 1794. Robespierre was the last victim of the Guillotine and the Reign of Terror.

Multimedia.pngIf you are looking for a fabulous film chronicling the rise of Robespierre, please check out the 1983 French film Danton. Click here to see a selection showcasing the cult of conformity in the National Assembly blindly trusting the Committee of Public Safety.

Multimedia.pngClick here for the Khan Academy tutorial on the Reign of Terror
Click here for a BBC documentary on Maximilien Robespierre and the Reign of Terror

lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the Reign of Terror

Jacobins The Jacobins were a group of political extremists who overthrew the old regime and established a government in 1793.

F) Rise of Napoleon

Portrait of Napoleon, 1812
Portrait of Napoleon, 1812

  • After Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, a legislature and executive body were founded in France. The executive body was known as the Directory and quickly became corrupt.

  • Napoleon, a French general, was concerned by this corruption. When he returned to France in 1799, he joined a plot to overthrow the Directory. After the Directory was overthrown, he crowned himself Emperor in 1804.

Quill_and_ink.pngClick here for a short biography of Napoleon.

  • Napoleon centralized power and quickly decided to try to extend his rule. He used the French army to conquer most of continental Europe, setting his sights on Russia and Prussia.

  • Napoleon’s army was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. Napoleon was banished to the island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.

timeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a timeline of Napoleon
lessonplan.jpgClick here for lesson plans to accompany the PBS documentary on Napoleon

The French people supported Napoleon Bonaparte because they hoped he would

  1. adopt the ideas of the Protestant Reformation
  2. restore Louis XVI to power
  3. provide stability for the nation
  4. end British control of France

Correct answer: 3

G) The Congress of Vienna

The Congress of Vienna was a conference of European diplomats held from September of 1814 to June of 1815.
  • The first goal was to establish a new balance of power in Europe which would prevent imperialism within Europe, such as the Napoleonic empire, and maintain the peace between the great powers.
    • The second goal was to prevent political revolutions, such as the French Revolution, and maintain the status quo.

Map of Europe, after the Congress of Vienna, 1815
Map of Europe, after the Congress of Vienna, 1815

It was chaired by Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, it attempted to offer a solution to European developments spearheaded by the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests.
    • They wanted to restore the "Old Regime" of authoritarian politics. Ultimately, the Congress decided to return France to its 1789 borders, hoping this would quell the Revolutionary spirit of the past.

lessonplan.jpgWorld History Lecture on the Congress of Vienna.

Importance of the French Revolution

----It brought the People to the forefront of politics
----set the model for later revolutions, and
----changed the political map of Europe forever

map-ancient-rome-2.jpgClick here for an interactive map of Europe explaining the Congress of Vienna rulings
primary_sources.PNGClick here for primary sources from the Congress of Vienna
lessonplan.jpgClick here for a lesson plan on the Congress of Vienna, in which students hold a mock meeting to repair Europe

external image Test_hq3x.pngSample TEST Question
Which of the following best describes why a specific group supported the French Revolution of 1789?
a) The bourgeoisie revolted because the growing national debt hampered their commercial relations with other nations.
b) Peasants revolted to escape high taxes and their feudal obligations to nobles.
c) Prominent members of the nobility revolted because they resented the growing wealth and power of merchants and manufacturers
d) Artisans revolted to protest the working conditions of an emerging factory system.


Websites of Interest:
[1]Barber, N (2006). The Complete Idiot's Guide to European History. New York, New York: Penguin Group. Pages 219 – 249.
[2]Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Retrieved on February 26, 2010: http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/
[3]Maximilien Robespierre and the French Revolution”. Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from Yale Open Courses: http://oyc.yale.edu/history/european-civilization-1648-1945/content/sessions/lecture06.html.
[4] “Napoleon” Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from Yale Open Courses: http://oyc.yale.edu/history/european-civilization-1648-1945/content/sessions/lecture07.html
[5] “Causes of the French Revolution.” Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from The Corner: http://www.thecorner.org/hist/f3/fr_revo_causes.htm.
[6]Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens. Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from Yale Law: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/rightsof.asp
[7]Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen. Retrieved from February 26, 2010 PINN: http://www.pinn.net/~sunshine/book-sum/gouges.html.
[8]The Execution of Louis XVI. Retrieved on February26, 2010 from The History Guide: http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/louis_trial.html
[9]Clip from Danton. Retrieved on February 26, 2010:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGvbEOSFle0\
“[10]Origins of the French Revolution”. Retrieved on February 26, 2010 from Fordham University: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/lect/mod10.html.
[11]The French Revolution. A History Channel Presentation. Retrieved on February 26, 2010: see links above from YouTube
[12]Hunt, Lynn (2001). Exploring the French Revolution. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from Exploring the French Revolution Web site: http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/
[13]Center for History and New Media, (2007). Imaging the French Revolution. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from Imaging the French Revolution Web site: http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/imaging/about.html
[14](1789). Declaration of the Rights of Man. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from The Avalon Project Web site: http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/rightsof.htm
[15]Foundation Napoleon, (2006). Napoleon.Org. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from Foundation Napoleon Web site: http://www.napoleon.org/en/home.asp
[16]Brainard, Jennifer (2003). The French Revolution. Retrieved March 1, 2007, from HistoryWiz Web site: http://www.historywiz.com/oldregime.htm