Skip to Main Content


UE: POL 110-HA: Democracy in Troubled Times: French Revolution

Practical Instruction in Civic Discourse

Overview - The French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille

The French Revolution convulsed Europe in the name of equality, overturning the absolute monarchy of France, casting off the influence of the feudal aristocracy and the Roman Catholic Church, and, in the wake of Napoleon's victorious armies, eventually spreading political and social upheaval across the entire continent.  The history of revolutionary period in France may be broken into four stages: the formation of the National Constituent Assembly and its failed attempt to found a constitutional monarchy (1789-1791); the establishment of Committee of Public Safety and its reign of terror (1791-1795); the Thermidorian reaction to the worst excesses of the revolution under the Directory (1795-1799); and the retreat to the Consulate which resulted in the dictatorship of Napoleon and the end of popular government (1799-1804). Of the intellectual origins of the French Revolution, in its earliest stage, it may have drawn inspiration from the liberal Lockean ideas of the American Revolution, but the real intellectual god-father of the French Revolution was Rousseau, the author of the Social Contract, whose ideas were appropriated by Robespierre, the leader of the radical Jacobin party. It should also be noted that both the movement for women's rights and early socialism made a brief. but largely ineffectual. appearance during the revolutionary struggle, neither of which happened during the American Revolution.

Essential Question:

Did the French Revolution succeed or fail in advancing the principles of social and political democracy?

Copyright © 2013 - Hudson Reynolds, Ph.D.

Causes of the French Revolution

The pre-revolutionary Ancien Regime system in France was based on the concentration of all political, social and economic power among three classes, the monarchy, the clergy, and the aristocracy.

  • The First Estate represented the Roman Catholic clergy.
  • The Second Estate represented the nobility, with its main governor, King Louis XVI and his "court".
  • Finally, the Third Estate represented the rest of the population, the poorest and largest group of people.

High unemployment, starvation and increased debt burdens on the people led to the meeting of the Estates-General of 1789. The meeting included representatives of the clergy, the nobility and the remainder of the people. When the meeting was assembled in Versailles, the Third Estate (people) demanded a doubling of its representatives and was met with support from many liberal nobles and clergy.

The inequality in distribution of powers and rights between these different estates was the main cause of the explosion of anger among Third Estate representatives. There were very few opportunities for the general population to ascend the social ladder as all privileges were determined by birth and not by talent. The social mobility rights could be bought but it was impossible for the poorest to afford them. All the main political decisions were taken arbitrarily by the King and his advisers, with little or no direct consultation with the rest of the French population. Added to this unfair and archaic political system, a terrible economic crisis pushed the poorest people closer to revolt.

The "Committee of Thirty," a group of Parisians, released pamphlets to the public demanding the expansion of the Third Estate, until finally the representatives of the people moved to establish their own legislative body.Inviting the clergy and the nobility, the National Assembly was established on June 17, 1789. They declared themselves to be operating in the name of the people. They restored faith in the credit market and established a committee to deal with the food shortages. Threatened by this development, King Louis XVI shut down the hall in which the Assembly convened.

The military was mobilized to surround the city, threatening the Assembly's existence. The members moved to a tennis court, where 576 men signed an oath to stay convened regardless of the outcome.

Soon, the remaining nobles and clergy joined the Assembly, along with the King's finance minister. On July 9, the National Assembly was reorganized into the National Constituent Assembly to establish a constitution. Five days later, the Bastille was stormed, signaling the beginning of the French Revolution.

Due to the poor economic conditions of France and the ideas presented by the Enlightenment, King Louis XVI was effectively powerless to prevent the establishment of the National Assembly. He didn't have the full support of the military and very little from the church or nobility. Also, the recent events of the American Revolution helped fuel public mistrust of the monarchy and its established government. To avoid an armed conflict, Louis XVI was forced to act without levying his full powers, ultimately leading to the full French Revolution.


The Origins of the French Revolution: American Influence, Domestic Discontent  ?   

The National Assembly - 1789-1791

The National Assembly was very short-lived but established the basis for the various bodies of government that would exist during the long process of the Revolution. It was established by the "Commons," but soon ballooned into a fully functioning body representing all the different powers in France.

One of the largest initial supporters was the Duke of Orleans, who was one of the strongest voices of the nobility for the establishment of the National Assembly. His continued work and connections helped push the reforms through that guided the French people through their Revolution.

As the first governing body of the Revolution, the National Assembly's procedures were fundamental in establishing the way legislative bodies would work in France. With hundreds of members, the Assembly created committees and subcommittees that would tackle certain economic problems. It also gave itself the power to levy taxes and declared itself the body of government despite the continued existence of the monarchy.

The National Assembly laid the groundwork for what was to be a long and bloody revolution. Culminating in the storming of the Bastille, the Assembly motivated the agrarian population to move into an insurgency against the aristocracy. Many nobles who didn't support the Assembly fled the country, and the king was forced into a merely symbolic role, since he had become powerless.


Marquis de Lafayette - the Conservative

In 1787 Lafayette took his seat in the Assembly of Notables. He demanded, and he alone signed the demand, that the king convoke the states-general, thus becoming a leader in the French Revolution. He showed Liberal tendencies both in that assembly and after its dispersal, and in 1788 was deprived, in consequence, of his active command. In 1789

Lafayette was elected to the states-general, and took a prominent part in its proceedings. He was chosen vice-president of the National Assembly, and on the 11th of July 1789 presented a declaration of rights, modelled on Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence in 1776.

On the 15th of July, the second day of the new regime, Lafayette was chosen by acclamation colonel-general of the new National Guard of Paris. He also proposed the combination of the colours of Paris, red and blue, and the royal white, into the famous tricolour cockade of modern France (July 17.)

For the succeeding three years, until the end of the constitutional monarchy in 1792, his history is largely the history of France. His life was beset with very great responsibility and perils, for he was ever the minister of humanity and order among a frenzied people who had come to regard order and humanity as phases of treason. He rescued the queen from the hands of the populace on the 5th and 6th of October 1789, saved many humbler victims who had been condemned to death, and he risked his life in many unsuccessful attempts to rescue others.

In the Constituent Assembly he pleaded for the abolition of arbitrary imprisonment, for religious tolerance, for popular representation, for the establishment of trial by jury, for the gradual emancipation of slaves, for the freedom of the press, for the abolition of titles of nobility, and the suppression of privileged orders.

In February 1790 he refused the supreme command of the National Guard of the kingdom. In May he founded the "Society of 1789" which afterwards became the Feuillants Club. He took a prominent part in the celebration of July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the destruction of the Bastille.

He was the friend of liberty as well as of order, and when Louis XVI fled to Varennes he issued orders to stop him.

Having been promoted lieutenant-general, 30 June, 1791, he was appointed, on the declaration of war against Austria, 20 April, 1792, to command the army of the center, 52,000 strong, between Philippeville and Lauterbourg. From his camp at Maubeuge, 16 June, he wrote the famous letter to the National assembly, in which he denounced the dangerous policy of the Jacobins. The insurrection of 20 June followed.

On the 28th Lafayette came to Paris, and appeared before the assembly to defend his course. After two days, finding the Jacobins all-powerful in the city, he returned to camp, and formed a plan for removing the king from Paris. Before the plan was fully matured, and while his army was at Sedan, only four days' march from the capital, there came the news of the revolution of 10 Aug. and the imprisonment of the king.

Lafayette now refused to obey the orders of the assembly, and arrested the three commissioners sent by that body to his camp. In return the assembly removed him from command and appointed Dumouriez in his place, 19 Aug.; his impeachment was also decided upon, and it became evident that his soldiers were in sympathy with the Jacobins.

He fled into Belgium with half a dozen companions, was taken prisoner by the Austrians, and handed over by them to the Prussians, by whom he was imprisoned first at Wesel, afterward at Magdeburg. He was offered his liberty on condition of assisting the allies in their invasion of France, but refused. After a year's incarceration at Magdeburg, he was transferred to Austria for safe keeping, and passed the next four years in a loathsome dungeon at Ohnutz, where he was treated with barbarous cruelty.

-- NNDB <beta versopn>
<> (09/14/13)

Writing about Lafayette’s remarkable life, the historian Lloyd S. Kramer notes: “No other prominent figure lived through or participated so extensively in the sequence of national revolutions that moved from North America (1770s) to France (1789) to south America (1820s) to Greece (1820s) to Spain (1820s) to France again (1830) to Belgium (1830) and finally to Poland (1831-33), not to mention other national movements in Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, or Germany. Lafayette connected people and events in all of these places, serving as a liberal revolutionary bridge”. In light of Lafayette’s consistent support for liberal causes and reform movements, it is noteworthy that his legacy today is frequently cited by neo-conservative supporters of democratic export and regime change policies, dating back to Ronald Reagan’s State of the Union address on January 25, 1988: “Let us be for the people of Nicaragua what Lafayette, Pulaski, and Von Steuben were for our forefathers and the cause of American independence.”

-- “Lafayette: Citizen of Two Worlds” Cornell University
<> (09/14/13)

TEXT: Popular Leadership of Lafayette in the French Revolution - by Michelle Brown  (09/14/13)  ?   

Declaration of the Rights of Man - July 11, 1789

The Declaration specifically laid claim to France's sovereignty, stating that no individual can use the authority of the nation without its express consent. It called for equality for all citizens, effectively ending the class structure that had existed for hundreds of years. All citizens would be guaranteed "liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression." It stated that laws could only exist that preserve an individual's natural rights and ensured other citizens' natural rights in society. The Declaration addressed any future government organization, stating that the public force that is created will be responsible for the citizenry and not a position of power. That public force and its administration would be funded by a taxation policy based on apportionment related to an individual's wealth and income. Joining with the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Declaration called for common defense, no cruel and unusual punishments, freedom of speech and press, and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

Some problems with the Declaration include is presumption that the rights addressed within its words are meant only for male citizens of France. It made no mention of women's rights and failed to bring into question the issue of slavery, which was as widespread in France as any nation in Europe. It also made little provision for the freedom of religion. After the March on Versailles on October 5, 1789, women presented a petition to the National Constituent Assembly asking for equality. It wasn't until 1946 and the adoption of the French Fourth Republic's Constitution, that women were expressly given equal rights. In addition, the slavery issue led to a revolt on the French colony of Haiti.

According to the modern French Constitution, the Declaration is the basis of law in the republic. The Constitutional Council has used the principles laid out in the document to uphold or defeat certain modern statutes. Any taxation that is levied has to comply with the issue of equality of the citizen, any attempt to circumvent this fact is struck down as unconstitutional. The general statements of equality issued in the Declaration have been utilized to support several ethnic groups within France, making the country one of the most diverse nations in Europe. Despite its omissions, the Declaration is considered by many to be the foundation of modern international human rights.



The Death of Socrates and the French Revolution

The Death of Socrates

Jacques-Louis David' s "Death of Socrates"

At the height of his youthful popularity and enthusiasm, part of a close circle of friends (including Chernier, Lafayette and Lavoisier) who were pushing for radical political reform, David painted this unusual historical picture in 1787. Commissioned by the Trudaine de Montigny brothers, leaders in the call for a free market system and more public discussion, this picture depicts the closing moments of the life of Socrates. Condemned to death or exile by the Athenian government for his teaching methods which aroused skepticism and impiety in his students, Socrates heroically rejected exile and accepted death from hemlock.

For months, David and his friends debated and discussed the importance of this picture. It was to be another father figure (like the Horatii and Brutus), unjustly condemned but who sacrifices himself for an abstract principle. By contrasting the movements of the energetic but firmly controlled Socrates, and his swooning disciples, through the distribution of light and dark accents, David transforms what might have been only a fashionable picture of martyrdom to a clarion call for nobility and self-control even in the face of death.

Here the philosopher continues to speak even while reaching for the cup, demonstrating his indifference to death and his unyielding commitment to his ideals. Most of his disciplines and slaves swirl around him in grief, betraying the weakness of emotionalism. His wife is seen only in the distance leaving the prison. Only Plato, at the foot of the bed and Crito grasping his master's leg, seem in control of themselves.

For contemporaries the scene could only call up memories of the recently abandoned attempt at reform, the dissolution of the Assembly of Notables in 1787, and the large number of political prisoners in the king's jails or in exile. David certainly intended this scene as a rebuke to cringing souls. On the eve of the Revolution, this picture served as a trumpet call to duty, and resistance to unjust authority. Thomas Jefferson was present at its unveiling, and admired it immensely. Sir Joshua Reynolds compared the Socrates with Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Raphael's Stanza Della Signatura, and after ten visits to the Salon described it as 'in every sense perfect'.


Robespierre - the Radical

In 1783, Robespierre arrived in Paris to defend his favorite cause. He volunteered to represent the poorest congregation of the Third Estate during the Estates General in March 1789. One of his main requests was the right for everyone to vote.

He admired the big ideas of freedom and equality embraced by the Enlightenment, a movement of French philosophers (Voltaire, Rousseau, etc) who wanted to change the world. His virtues earned him the nickname of "The Incorruptible".  He had a real talent in debate and succeeded in captivating his audience with a very elegant touch. He became very popular, and the people considered him one of its main weapons to counter the King's hegemony.

In 1791, he participated in the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, one of the most important civil text ever written in France, a foundation of the French constitution. He also opposed to the death penalty and slavery, both of which he considered barbaric. He became an active participant in the Jacobins, one of the more radical movements of the new assembly, and rapidly became one of their most respected members.

A few days after Louis XVI was forced to sign a document that diminished his constitutional powers, he tried to escape from Paris and was arrested in Varennes, Robespierre stood up in front of the Assembly and opposed the death penalty against the traitor. The day after, a huge mob rallied to the "Champ de Mars" to call for the implementation of the "Republique". Martial law was in force, and Lafayette ordered the mob be dispersed by firing at it. Lafayette then accused Robespierre of organizing this riot. Robespierre resigned from his position but retained support from the French population. After few weeks, the Constituent Assembly was dissolved and he was named Public Prosecutor of Paris.

The Girondists now entered upon the scene as a growing political faction and began imposing their ideas. They were more radical than Robespierre and wanted to destroy any trace of the previous regime. Robespierre opposed many of their measures, like the entry of France into war against Austria, which he considered as being too expensive, too distracting, and too hazardous. France was in the midst of a terrible economic crisis and still shaking from the past year's events.

Robespierre thought the war was an excuse for Lafayette to restore some kind of military power in his weak country. So, he decided to act strongly by resigning from his office and joining the strongmen of the "Commune", which he did  in August 1792. He presented the petition of the "Commune de Paris" where he demanded that La Fayette should be dismissed and declared a traitor.  He demanded that the people of France should come together and ask for a collective convention.

Robespierre joined Danton and Marat at the new national assembly or "Convention Nationale". Their political battle turned quickly into an offensive against their rivals, the Girondists. In October, rioters from the Commune de Paris arrested thirty-two Girondin deputies in the Convention and accused them of counter-revolutionary activities.The dark days of Robespierre started with this action.

After the elimination of the Girondists, new enemies sprang up to derail Robespierre's plans of funding the free and equal nation he always dreamed of. The Austrian monarchy was at the border, poised to invade a country considered to be weak without a king and with no real army. Within the leadership of the Commune signs of discord were emerging. Danton favored war with Austria, while Robespierre opposed it.

The Terror began in September 1793, a cruel period when hundreds of French people died in a frightening spectacle of rage and decadence. People were arrested and executed without trial if they were accused of being enemies of the revolution. It is estimated that about 40,000 people died during this 15 months period. These events led to the termination of the newly built constitution.

Robespierre was then pictured by many as a despot who was capable of the worst actions to support his ideas of the revolution. He became a supporter of the death penalty, even though he fought against it during the early stage of the revolution. Censorship was reinstalled in the press, and Robespierre launched a de-Christianization campaign all around the country. One of the symbols of this act was the adoption of the Revolutionary Calendar with the first epoch starting on September 22nd, 1792 -- the day the first Republic was proclaimed. As events snowballed, Danton himself was considered too moderate and was arrested and executed.

After the terror and the elimination of the most radical members of his group, Robespierre tried once again to impose his ideas of a democracy, where all the people had a right to possess their land, and everybody was free and considered equal.

Robespierre was evicted from the Convention and accused of dictatorship and tyranny. The members voted his eviction and his death at the same time, without allowing him to defend himself. The same day, he was decapitated under the ovation of the people of Paris. His death was the symbol of the end of the Terror and the end of the democratic movement at the same time.

-- adapted from Bastille Day
<> (09/14/13)

Napoleon Assumes the Dictatorship - the Man on Horseback

The Directory was overthrown by the coup of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9–10, 1799), and the Consulate was established with Bonaparte as first consul. The autocratic constitution of the year VIII was accepted by plebiscite. In effect, the constitution established the dictatorship of Bonaparte.

As Consul, Napoleon made a point of ruling as a civilian, but he was more authoritarian than Louis XVI. Napoleon declared that France had finished with the "romance of the revolution." He centralized the administration, while giving local prefects considerable power in executing the policies of the central government. Officials and military officers were recruited from several strata of society and from all revolutionary factions, including émigrés. However they were appointed, not elected, and strict obedience was enforced.

Bonaparte's administrative reforms established an efficient modern state that was capable of effectively mobilizing its resources and afforded him vast patronage powers. He established the Bank of France. He also made peace with the Roman Catholic Church by the Concordat of 1801, which reestablished the church in France, but bound it to the success of his regime. He thereby neutralized the anti-revolutionary priests who had encouraged peasant unrest (see Chouans) since 1793. Church property was not restored, but church unity and status were reestablished in return for stricter submission to civil authorities. The legal system was reformed with the Code Napoléon, which was begun before Bonaparte's consulate but was marked by his priorities.

While establishing the regime at home, Napoleon also dealt with France's enemies (1800), crossing the St. Bernard pass and defeating (June 14) the Austrians at Marengo, Italy. With the Treaty of Lunéville (1801) with Austria and the Treaty of Amiens (1802) with Great Britain, the Second Coalition was ended and France became paramount on the Continent.

Napoleon's ambition did not rest. In Aug., 1802, a plebiscite approved his becoming first consul for life; a modified constitution, that of the year X, came into force. In the same year he incorporated Piedmont into France.

-- Napoleon I: The Consulate |
<> (09/14/13)


Napoleon Crossing the Alps - by Jacques-Louis David