1.9 The French Revolution – Class 9 Social Studies
Who was King Louis XVI?
In 1774, Louis XVI of the Bourbon family of kings ascended the throne of France.
He was 20 years old and married to the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette.
How did France run into great financial crisis during Louis XVI’s time?
Upon his accession the new king found an empty treasury.
Long years of war had drained the financial resources of France.
Under Louis XVI, France helped the thirteen American colonies to gain their independence from the common enemy, Britain.
The war added more than a billion livres to a debt that had already risen to more than 2 billion livres.
Added to this was the cost of maintaining an extravagant court at the immense palace of Versailles.
Lenders who gave the state credit, now began to charge 10 per cent interest on loans.
So the French government was obliged to spend an increasing percentage of its budget on interest payments alone.
To meet its regular expenses, such as the cost of maintaining an army, the court, running government offices or universities, the state was forced to increase taxes.
Yet even this measure would not have sufficed.
French Society During the Late Eighteenth Century
French society in the eighteenth century was divided into three estates, and only members of the third estate paid taxes.
The society of estates was part of the feudal system that dated back to the middle ages.
Peasants made up about 90 per cent of the population. However, only a small number of them owned the land they cultivated.
About 60 per cent of the land was owned by nobles, the Church and other richer members of the third estate.
What were the privileges enjoyed by the first and the second estates?
The most important of these was exemption from paying taxes to the state.
The nobles further enjoyed feudal privileges. These included feudal dues, which they extracted from the peasants.
What were the obligations that the peasants (third estate) had to render to the other estates?
Taille (direct tax)
A number of indirect taxes which were levied on articles of everyday consumption like salt or tobacco.
Work in his house and fields
Serve in the army
Participate in building roads.
What does old regime refer to? The term Old Regime is usually used to describe the society and institutions of France before 1789.
The need for a revolution?
The population of France rose from about 23 million in 1715 to 28 million in 1789.
This led to a rapid increase in the demand for foodgrains.
Production of grains could not keep pace with the demand.
So the price of bread which was the staple diet of the majority rose rapidly.
Most workers were employed as labourers in workshops whose owner fixed their wages.
But wages did not keep pace with the rise in prices. So the gap between the poor and the rich widened.
Things became worse whenever drought or hail reduced the harvest.
This led to a subsistence crisis, something that occurred frequently in France during the Old Regime.
A Growing Middle Class Envisages an End to Privileges
In the past, peasants and workers had participated in revolts against increasing taxes and food scarcity.
But they lacked the means and programmes to carry out full-scale measures that would bring about a change in the social and economic order.
This was left to those groups within the third estate who had become prosperous and had access to education and new ideas.
How did a middle class rise from the third estate?
The eighteenth century witnessed the emergence of social groups, termed the middle class.
They earned their wealth through:
An expanding overseas trade.
The manufacture of goods such as woollen and silk textiles that were either exported or bought by the richer members of society.
In addition to merchants and manufacturers, the third estate included professions such as lawyers or administrative officials.
All of these were educated and believed that no group in society should be privileged by birth.
Rather, a person’s social position must depend on his merit.
Who were the chief philosophers of the French revolution?
Freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all.
“Two Treatises of Government.”
Questioned the doctrine of the divine and absolute right of the monarch.
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Freedom and equal laws and opportunities for all.
Rousseau carried the idea of John Locke forward.
He proposed a form of government based on a social contract between people and their representatives.
Spirit of the Laws
Proposed a division of power within the government between:
How did the French philosophers influence the world in general?
A government based on legislative, executing and judiciary was adopted in the USA, after the thirteen colonies declared their independence from Britain.
The American constitution and its guarantee of individual rights was an important example for political thinkers in France.
The ideas of these philosophers were discussed intensively in salons and coffee-houses and spread among people through books and newspapers.
These were frequently read aloud in groups for the benefit of those who could not read and write.
What is known as subsistence crisis?
Subsistence crisis – An extreme situation where the basic means of livelihood are endangered.
What was Estates General? The Estates General was a political body to which the three estates sent their representatives.
How did the Revolution break out in France?
On 5 May 1789, Louis XVI called together an assembly of the Estates General to pass proposals for new taxes.
A hall in Versailles was prepared to host the representatives of the three estates.
The first and second estates sent 300 representatives each, who were seated in rows facing each other on two sides.
The 600 members of the third estate had to stand at the back.
The third estate was represented by its more prosperous and educated members.
Peasants, artisans and women were denied entry to the assembly.
However, their grievances and demands were listed in some 40,000 letters which the representatives had brought with them.
Voting in the Estates General in the past had been conducted according to the principle that each estate had one vote.
This time too Louis XVI was determined to continue the same practice.
But members of the third estate demanded that voting now be conducted by the assembly as a whole, where each member would have one vote.
This was one of the democratic principles put forward by philosophers like Rousseau in his book The Social Contract.
When the king rejected this proposal, members of the third estate walked out of the assembly in protest.
The representatives of the third estate viewed themselves as spokesmen for the whole French nation.
On 20 June they assembled in the hall of an indoor tennis court in the grounds of Versailles.
They declared themselves a National Assembly and swore not to disperse till they had drafted a constitution for France that would limit the powers of the monarch.
They were led by Mirabeau and Abbé Sieyès.
While the National Assembly was busy at Versailles drafting a constitution, the rest of France seethed with turmoil.
Why did the people of France storm the Bastile?
A severe winter had meant a bad harvest.
The price of bread rose, often bakers exploited the situation and hoarded supplies.
After spending hours in long queues at the bakery, crowds of angry women stormed into the shops.
At the same time, the king ordered troops to move into Paris.
On 14 July, the angry crowd stormed and destroyed the Bastille.
How did French Revolution start in the countryside?
In the countryside rumours spread from village to village that the lords of the manor had hired bands of brigands who were on their way to destroy the ripe crops.
Peasants in several districts seized hoes and pitchforks and attacked the palace.
They looted hoarded grain and burnt down documents containing records of dues that each peasant owed the landlords.
How did the French Revolution affect the king and the nobles?
A large number of nobles ran away from their homes.
Many of them migrated to neighbouring countries.
Louis XVI finally gave official permission to the National Assembly and accepted the principle that his powers would be controlled by a constitution.
On the night of 4 August 1789, the Assembly passed a law abolishing the feudal system of obligations and taxes.
Members of the clergy too were forced to give up their privileges.
Tithes were abolished and lands owned by the Church were confiscated.
As a result, the government acquired assets worth at least 2 billion livres.
France Becomes a Constitutional Monarchy
The National Assembly completed the draft of the constitution in 1791.
Its main object was to limit the powers of the monarch.
These powers instead of being concentrated in the hands of one person, were now separated and assigned to different institutions – the legislature, executive and judiciary.
This made France a constitutional monarchy.
The Constitution of 1791 got the power to make laws in the National Assembly, which was indirectly elected.
Citizens voted for a group of electors, who in turn chose the Assembly.
Who had the right to vote in the National Assembly?
Not all citizens had the right to vote.
Only men above 25 years of age who paid taxes equal to at least 3 days of a labourer’s wage were given the status of active citizens were entitled to vote.
The remaining men and all women were classed as passive citizens.
To qualify as an elector and then as a member of the Assembly, a man had to belong to the highest bracket of taxpayers.
Who was Mirabeau?
Mirabeau was born in a noble family but was convinced of the need to do away with a society of feudal privilege.
He brought out a journal and delivered powerful speeches to the crowds assembled at Versailles.
Who was Abbé Sieyès? Abbé Sieyès, originally a priest, wrote an influential pamphlet called ‘What is the Third Estate’?
The Constitution began with a Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Which were the natural and inalienable’ rights?
Right to life,
Freedom of speech,
Freedom of opinion,
Equality before law,
The Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen.
Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.
The aim of every political association is the preservation of the natural and inalienable rights of man; these are liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression.
The source of all sovereignty resides in the nation; no group or individual may exercise authority that does not come from the people.
Liberty consists of the power to do whatever is not injurious to others.
The law has the right to forbid only actions that are injurious to society.
Law is the expression of the general will.
All citizens have the right to participate in its formation, personally or through their representatives. All citizens are equal before it.
No man may be accused, arrested or detained, except in cases determined by the law.
Every citizen may speak, write and print freely; he must take responsibility for the abuse of such liberty in cases determined by the law.
For the maintenance of the public force and for the expenses of administration a common tax is indispensable; it must be assessed equally on all citizens in proportion to their means.
Since property is a sacred and inviolable right, no one may be deprived of it, unless a legally established public necessity requires it. In that case a just compensation must be given in advance.
France becomes a Republic?
The situation in France continued to be tense during the following years.
Although Louis XVI had signed the Constitution, he entered into secret negotiations with the King of Prussia.
Rulers of other neighbouring countries too were worried by the developments in France and made plans to send troops to put down the events that had been taking place
there since the summer of 1789.
Before this could happen, the National Assembly voted in April 1792 to declare war against Prussia and Austria.
Thousands of French volunteers assembled from many French provinces (states) to join the army.
They considered this war as a war of the people against kings and nobles all over Europe.
Among the patriotic songs they sang was the Marseillaise, composed by the poet Roget de L’Isle.
It was sung for the first time by volunteers from Marseilles as they marched into Paris and so got its name.
The Marseillaise is now the national anthem of France.
What troubles did the French people undergo during the Revolution?
The revolutionary wars brought losses and economic difficulties to the people.
While the men were away fighting at the battlefield, women were left to cope with the tasks of earning a living and looking after their families.
Why were political clubs formed?
Large sections of the population were convinced that the revolution had to be carried further.
In fact the Constitution of 1791 gave political rights only to the richer sections of society.
Political clubs became an important rallying point for people who wished to discuss government policies and plan their own forms of action.
The most successful of these clubs was that of the Jacobins, which got its name from the former convent of St Jacob in Paris.
Women too, who had been active throughout this period, formed their own clubs. Section 4 of this chapter will tell
you more about their activities and demands.
The members of the Jacobin club belonged mainly to the less
prosperous sections of society. They included small shopkeepers,
artisans such as shoemakers, pastry cooks, watch-makers, printers,
as well as servants and daily-wage workers. Their leader was
Maximilian Robespierre. A large group among the Jacobins decided
to start wearing long striped trousers similar to those worn by
dock workers. This was to set themselves apart from the fashionable
sections of society, especially nobles, who wore knee breeches. It was a way of proclaiming the end of the power wielded by the
wearers of knee breeches. These Jacabins came to be known as the
sans-culottes, literally meaning ‘those without knee breeches’. Sansculottes
men wore in addition the red cap that symbolised liberty.
Women however were not allowed to do so.
In the summer of 1792 the Jacobins planned an insurrection of a
large number of Parisians who were angered by the short supplies
and high prices of food. On the morning of August 10 they stormed
the Palace of the Tuileries, massacred the king’s guards and held
the king himself as hostage for several hours. Later the Assembly
voted to imprison the royal family. Elections were held. From now
on all men of 21 years and above, regardless of wealth, got the right
The newly elected assembly was called the Convention. On
21 September 1792 it abolished the monarchy and declared France
a republic. As you know, a republic is a form of government where
the people elect the government including the head of the government. There is no hereditary monarchy. You can try and
find out about some other countries that are republics and investigate
when and how they became so.
Louis XVI was sentenced to death by a court on the charge of
treason. On 21 January 1793 he was executed publicly at the
Place de la Concorde. The queen Marie Antoinette met with the
same fate shortly after.
3.1 The Reign of Terror
The period from 1793 to 1794 is referred to as the Reign of
Terror. Robespierre followed a policy of severe control and
punishment. All those whom he saw as being ‘enemies’ of the
republic – ex-nobles and clergy, members of other political
parties, even members of his own party who did not agree with
his methods – were arrested, imprisoned and then tried by a
revolutionary tribunal. If the court found them ‘guilty’ they
were guillotined. The guillotine is a device consisting of two
poles and a blade with which a person is beheaded. It was named
after Dr Guillotin who invented it.
Robespierre’s government issued laws placing a maximum ceiling
on wages and prices. Meat and bread were rationed. Peasants
were forced to transport their grain to the cities and sell it at
prices fixed by the government. The use of more expensive white
flour was forbidden; all citizens were required to eat the pain
d’égalité (equality bread), a loaf made of wholewheat. Equality
was also sought to be practised through forms of speech and
address. Instead of the traditional Monsieur (Sir) and Madame
(Madam) all French men and women were henceforth Citoyen
and Citoyenne (Citizen). Churches were shut down and their buildings converted into barracks or offices.
Robespierre pursued his policies so relentlessly that even his
supporters began to demand moderation. Finally, he was
convicted by a court in July 1794, arrested and on the next day
sent to the guillotine.
3.2 A Directory Rules France
The fall of the Jacobin government allowed the wealthier middle
classes to seize power. A new constitution was introduced which
denied the vote to non-propertied sections of society. It provided
for two elected legislative councils. These then appointed a Directory,
an executive made up of five members. This was meant as a safeguard
against the concentration of power in a one-man executive as under
the Jacobins. However, the Directors often clashed with the legislative
councils, who then sought to dismiss them. The political instability
of the Directory paved the way for the rise of a military dictator,
Through all these changes in the form of government, the ideals of
freedom, of equality before the law and of fraternity remained inspiring
ideals that motivated political movements in France and the rest of Europe
during the following century.
Women and the French Revolution.
From the very beginning women were active participants in the events
which brought about so many important changes in French society.
They hoped that their involvement would pressurise the revolutionary
government to introduce measures to improve their lives. Most
women of the third estate had to work for a living. They worked as
seamstresses or laundresses, sold flowers, fruits and vegetables at the
market, or were employed as domestic servants in the houses of
prosperous people. Most women did not have access to education or
job training. Only daughters of nobles or wealthier members of the
third estate could study at a convent, after which their families
arranged a marriage for them. Working women had also to care for
their families, that is, cook, fetch water, queue up for bread and
look after the children. Their wages were lower than those of men.
In order to discuss and voice their interests women started their own
political clubs and newspapers. About sixty women’s clubs came up
in different French cities. The Society of Revolutionary and
Republican Women was the most famous of them. One of their main demands was that women enjoy the same political rights as
men. Women were disappointed that the Constitution of 1791 reduced
them to passive citizens. They demanded the right to vote, to be
elected to the Assembly and to hold political office. Only then, they
felt, would their interests be represented in the new government.
In the early years, the revolutionary government did introduce laws
that helped improve the lives of women. Together with the creation
of state schools, schooling was made compulsory for all girls. Their
fathers could no longer force them into marriage against their will.
Marriage was made into a contract entered into freely and registered
under civil law. Divorce was made legal, and could be applied for by
both women and men. Women could now train for jobs, could
become artists or run small businesses.
Women’s struggle for equal political rights, however, continued.
During the Reign of Terror, the new government issued laws ordering
closure of women’s clubs and banning their political activities. Many
prominent women were arrested and a number of them executed.
Women’s movements for voting rights and equal wages continued
through the next two hundred years in many countries of the world.
The fight for the vote was carried out through an international
suffrage movement during the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries. The example of the political activities of French women during the revolutionary years was kept alive as an inspiring memory.
It was finally in 1946 that women in France won the right to vote.
Abolition of slavery
One of the most revolutionary social reforms of the Jacobin regime
was the abolition of slavery in the French colonies. The colonies in
the Caribbean – Martinique, Guadeloupe and San Domingo – were
important suppliers of commodities such as tobacco, indigo, sugar
and coffee. But the reluctance of Europeans to go and work in distant
and unfamiliar lands meant a shortage of labour on the plantations.
So this was met by a triangular slave trade between Europe, Africa
and the Americas. The slave trade began in the seventeenth century.
French merchants sailed from the ports of Bordeaux or Nantes to
the African coast, where they bought slaves from local chieftains.
Branded and shackled, the slaves were packed tightly into ships for
the three-month long voyage across the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
There they were sold to plantation owners. The exploitation of slave
labour made it possible to meet the growing demand in European
markets for sugar, coffee, and indigo. Port cities like Bordeaux and
Nantes owed their economic prosperity to the flourishing slave trade. Throughout the eighteenth century there was little criticism of slavery
in France. The National Assembly held long debates about whether
the rights of man should be extended to all French subjects including
those in the colonies. But it did not pass any laws, fearing opposition
from businessmen whose incomes depended on the slave trade. It
was finally the Convention which in 1794 legislated to free all slaves
in the French overseas possessions. This, however, turned out to be
a short-term measure: ten years later, Napoleon reintroduced slavery.
Plantation owners understood their freedom as including the right
to enslave African Negroes in pursuit of their economic interests.
Slavery was finally abolished in French colonies in 1848.
Revolution and Everyday Life.
Can politics change the clothes people wear, the language they speak
or the books they read? The years following 1789 in France saw many
such changes in the lives of men, women and children. The
revolutionary governments took it upon themselves to pass laws that
would translate the ideals of liberty and equality into everyday practice.
One important law that came into effect soon after the storming of
the Bastille in the summer of 1789 was the abolition of censorship. In
the Old Regime all written material and cultural activities – books,
newspapers, plays – could be published or performed only after they
had been approved by the censors of the king. Now the Declaration
of the Rights of Man and Citizen proclaimed freedom of speech and
expression to be a natural right. Newspapers, pamphlets, books and
printed pictures flooded the towns of France from where they
travelled rapidly into the countryside. They all described and discussed
the events and changes taking place in France. Freedom of the press
also meant that opposing views of events could be expressed. Each
side sought to convince the others of its position through the medium
of print. Plays, songs and festive processions attracted large numbers
of people. This was one way they could grasp and identify with ideas
such as liberty or justice that political philosophers wrote about at
length in texts which only a handful of educated people could read.
In 1804, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France.
He set out to conquer neighbouring European countries, dispossessing
dynasties and creating kingdoms where he placed members of his family.
Napoleon saw his role as a moderniser of Europe. He introduced many
laws such as the protection of private property and a uniform system of
weights and measures provided by the decimal system. Initially, many
saw Napoleon as a liberator who would bring freedom for the people.
But soon the Napoleonic armies came to be viewed everywhere as an
invading force. He was finally defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Many of his
measures that carried the revolutionary ideas of liberty and modern laws
to other parts of Europe had an impact on people long after Napoleon
The ideas of liberty and democratic rights were the most important
legacy of the French Revolution. These spread from France to the
rest of Europe during the nineteenth century, where feudal systems were abolished. Colonised peoples reworked the idea of freedom from
bondage into their movements to create a sovereign nation state. Tipu
Sultan and Rammohan Roy are two examples of individuals who
responded to the ideas coming from revolutionary France.
Describe the circumstances leading to the outbreak of revolutionary protest in France.
Which groups of French society benefited from the revolution? Which groups were forced to relinquish power? Which sections of society would have been disappointed with the outcome of the revolution?
Describe the legacy of the French Revolution for the peoples of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Draw up a list of democratic rights we enjoy today whose origins could be traced to the French Revolution.
Would you agree with the view that the message of universal rights was beset with contradictions? Explain.
How would you explain the rise of Napoleon?
The broken chain: Chains were used to fetter slaves. A broken chain stands for the act of becoming free.
Some important dates
1774 – Louis XVI becomes king of France, faces empty treasury and growing discontent within society of the Old Regime.
1789 – Convocation of Estates General, Third Estate forms National Assembly, the Bastille is stormed, peasant revolts in the countryside.
1791 – A constitution is framed to limit the powers of the king and to guarantee basic rights to all human beings.
1792-93 – France becomes a republic, the king is beheaded.
Overthrow of the Jacobin republic, a Directory rules France.
1804 – Napoleon becomes emperor of France, annexes large parts of Europe.