The French Revolution

The French Revolution of 1789 was a key turning point in the history of France and indeed a good portion of Europe as well.

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Prise de la Bastille (1788-12-31) by Jean-Pierre-Louis-Laurent HouelThomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello

Hastened by Enlightenment philosophies, the revolution put an end to the feudal system as well as France’s absolute monarchy, and changed the country's entire political landscape. It was also a considerably bloody revolution, which earned it the name Reign of Terror.

The Structure of Power

France had been ruled by an absolute monarch system, which relied upon many medieval systems, such as the feudal system, up until the late 1800s. The feudal system divided everyone into 3 distinct classes, or “Estates,” which greatly determined what a person was permitted to do, or could not do in life.

The 3 estates were simply named: the First Estate, the Second Estate, and the Third Estate. It was the improper distribution of power between these 3 estates that greatly contributed to the revolution. 

The First Estate.

The First Estate was comprised of clergy who were responsible for keeping records and running schools. The upper clergy did little work and lived extravagantly off the 10% levy imposed on the third estate living on church-owned lands.

The lower clergy lived much like the members of the third estate.

The Second Estate.

The Second Estate, comprised of French nobility, made up roughly 1.5% of the French population, yet controlled 20-30% of the land. They alone could hold the highest offices in the church, the courts, and the government.

The second estate was responsible for performing the civil government duties and administrating royal justice. 

The Third Estate.

The Third Estate contained over 95% of the French population. Laborers, tradesmen, merchants, aristocrats, and the bourgeoisie, all fell into this category and were the backbone of society.

The Third Estate built everything, grew everything, harvested everything, yet they had little to no power. 

The Buildup to Revolution

While historians may disagree about some of the causes for the French Revolution, it is generally agreed that the increase of enlightenment philosophies, the debt incurred from assisting the American Revolution, and the discontent within the bourgeoisie...

.... and the rest of the Third Estate, all played a key part in its beginnings. 

American Revolution.

France supported the Americans’ claim of independence from the British in 1778, supplying weapons, soldiers, supplies and ships. Assisting the Americans led to tremendous debt in France that was never really recovered.

The King tried to increase taxes and impose them upon all 3 estates, which caused great unrest.

The Bourgeoisie.

The bourgeoisie, members of the Third Estate, obtained their wealth without a title of nobility, typically bankers, merchants, and entrepreneurs whose fight for greater political influence led to turmoil.

The Second Estate saw their own political influence threatened while the Third Estate viewed the bourgeoisie as monopolizing land ownership. 

Enlightenment philosophy

Encouraged by the changes seen in England and America, philosophers such as John Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau began to question the feudal system of France and propose alternative forms of governance; namely a form of a constitutional monarchy or a republic.  

Key Historical Figures

Embroiled within the tensions of the Revolution were key figures involved in either pushing change forward or seeking to maintain the status quo. The First and Second Estates sought to continue things as they were, with a few exceptions who had developed more liberal and... thoughts along the lines of Britain and America, while the Third Estate actively sought to reenvision France. Amongst these famous and infamous figures, were the King of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Maximilien de Robespierre. 

King Louis XVI.

Assuming the throne in 1774 when the country was in debt and seeking to hurt Britain, Louis XVI supported the American Revolution, which increased the country’s debt. Despite that, Louis lived extravagantly, causing unrest as he attempted to raise taxes on all estates.

Ultimately the Third Estate seized power by forming a national assembly, reducing him to a constitutional monarch. When he tried to escape in 1791, the assembly gained more power and Louis was tried and executed in 1793.

Maximilien de Robespierre.

Lawyer and leader of the Jacobins, a radical faction of the National Assembly, when the monarchy fell in August 1792, he was elected the first deputy of Paris to the National Convention, which abolished the monarchy, placed the king on trial, and made France a republic.

Robespierre then began seeking out and opposing any enemies to the revolution. His bloody rise during the Reign of Terror, and his increasingly autocratic policies led to his demise in July 1794 when he was tried and executed by more moderate revolutionists. 

Napoleon Bonaparte.

Napoleon gained renown by breaking the British occupation of the Port of Toulon in 1793, earning him the title brigadier general at age 24. In 1795, he was named commander in chief of the Italian armies. 

When unrest in France led to its enemies uniting to overthrow the newly formed republic, Emmanuel Sieyes, one of France’s new directors, recalled Napoleon to defend it. Napoleon crushed the opposition, which earned him the title First Consul for life. 

After an assassination plot was uncovered, Napoleon sought to abolish all unrest by declaring himself Emperor of France in 1804, ending the revolution. He then set up the “Napoleonic Code” or Code Civil, the first modern legal code of France.

Key Events

The French revolution spanned from 1789 to 1794, a total of 5 years. In that time, a kingdom that had stood for 800 years was ripped apart and its entire political landscape dramatically changed forever. The king was executed, new assemblies were formed, wars were fought, won...

... and lost, and tens of thousands of people were executed in order for the revolution to prevail. There are many events which played into these complicated years for France, but a few deserve special attention.  

Calling of the Estates-General & The Tennis Court Oath.

On May 5, 1789, King Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General, the first meeting of the estates representatives since 1614, to discuss the debt crisis. Robespierre, Representative of the Third Estate, feared that the burden of the nation's debt would be forced upon the Third Estate.

When the king proposed that all 3 estates should pay taxes, they rejected his proposal and the King disbanded the meeting. Refusing to accept that, the Third Estate leaders locked themselves in the palace tennis courts and took the famous Tennis Court Oath;

They would not leave until the King recognized their newly formed National Assembly and accepted their constitution which would reduce the king to a constitutional monarch with shared power. This was the first time the Third Estate had stood up to the King.  

July 14, 1789: Storming of Bastille.

After seeming to give into the demands made by the National Assembly, the king ordered his troops to surround Versailles and dismissed the popular minister of state who was pro-reform, Jacques Necker. In retaliation, the people of France stormed Bastille, a state prison...

... gaining weapons and ammunition to free the leaders of the Third Estate. When the King heard of Bastille's surrender, he withdrew his troops, reappointed Necker, and was forced to officially appoint the new National Constituent Assembly, which then became the new government. 

Sept 5, 1793: Reign of Terror.

With continued political unrest and enemies gathering at the borders, Robespierre, leader of the Committee of Public Safety, stated that “terror” would be the new order of the day in hopes that this would unify the country. Establishing new laws, Robespierre's goal was to... 

... crush any opposition to the new republic's power. This began a mass order of executions of anyone suspected of having royalist ties or any anti-revolutionary thoughts, affiliations, or connections.

Under Robespierre’s regime of terror upwards of 16,000 people were guillotined, including the king and queen.

The Outcome of Revolution

The French Revolution is considered one of the key turning points in France’s history, along with the history of Europe. While some historians contest that many of these changes were already in progress, there is no denying that the revolution greatly accelerated them.

Not only did it put an end to the feudal system, disband a kingdom and its monarchy, and establish civil laws and fairer representation of all peoples under governance, it also served to unify and strengthen France as a country and a people. 

The Napoleonic Code.

On March 21, 1804, one of the most lasting results of the revolution was the set into place - The Napoleonic Code. Still in place today (although with revisions), it was the first time France had a set of governing civil laws for the entire country.

The code declared that all men were equal, did away with privileges that came from class or social standing, and significantly reduced the role of the church.   

A New Identity.

Until the time of the revolution, France had been defined by its monarchy and strict social structures, related to the medieval feudal system. With the monarchy's downfall, the absolution of the social classes, and the disbanding of the church's power, France for the first....

... time began defining itself by the thoughts of the people based on new ideas and new philosophies. What emerged was a country where all men are considered equal and deserve the same rights under the law. 


During the revolution France was constantly at war and changes happening in France were under constant observation by the rest of Europe. 

Conquering the Rhineland in 1794, the ideologies of the French revolution began to be implemented in Germany, including abolition of the feudal system, centralized government controlled by France, and reorganization of the administrative and judicial systems. 

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