History of the French Revolution
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The history of the French Revolution began with the Estates General of 1789 and ended with the formation of the French Consulate in November 1799. In its wake came radical political and social change in France, and many of its ideas have become fundamental principles of liberal democracy. Slogans like “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!” helped inspire the 1917 Russian Revolution as well as movements for the abolition of slavery and universal suffrage. Moreover, the values of the French Revolution dominate democratic sentiment everywhere to this day.
The Revolution happened because the existing regime was no longer able to ameliorate the many miseries of the people. In May 1789, widespread social distress led to the convocation of the Estates-General, which became the National Assembly in June. Soon afterward, the Assembly passed a series of radical measures to abolish feudalism, state control of the Catholic Church, and the right to vote.
But the next three years of struggle for political control were worsened by widespread poverty and social unrest. Foreign powers like Austria, Britain and Prussia saw the Revolution as having led to the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in April 1792. Louis XVI’s attempt to flee the country led to the establishment of the First French Republic on 22 September 1792 and his execution soon after. Then, an uprising in Paris replaced the Girondin-dominated National Assembly with the infamous Committee of Public Safety under the murderous direction of Robespierre.
This became the Reign of Terror, a campaign to eradicate political enemies. By the time it ended in July 1794, more than 16,000 had been executed in Paris and the provinces. The Republic also faced a series of internal Royalist and Jacobin revolts that confronted the French Directory when it took power in November 1795. Despite a series of military victories, the war worsened economic stagnation and political divisions, and the Directory was replaced in November 1799 by the Consulate under Napoleon Bonaparte. This ended the Revolutionary period.
Napoléon rose to prominence as a French military officer during the French Revolution and led several successful campaigns during the Revolutionary Wars. He led the French Republic as First Consul from 1799 to 1804, and then made himself emperor. He reigned as such until being deposed in 1814 and finally exiled to St. Helena in 1815. Indeed, he had established France as a global power while leading it to victories against a series of coalitions in the Napoleonic Wars, and had built a large empire that ruled over continental Europe before its final collapse.
The Napoleonic reforms brought meritocracy, equality before the law, property rights, religious toleration, modern secular education, sound finances, and more to France. Most of these reforms were originated and administered by Napoleon. Moreover, his government brought effective local administration, put an end to rural banditry, and patronized science and the arts. And it abolished feudalism and established the greatest law code since the emperor Justinian’s a thousand years before.
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French Revolution Index | Society | Culture: Role of the American Revolution | Power: Governance • New Structure | Prelude | Domestic Phase | Moderate Phase | Revolutionary Wars | Radicalism | Jacobin Republic | Republic of Virtue | Old Regime | Catholic Church | Declaration of the Rights of Women • National Convention | Committee of Public Safety • Thermidorean Reaction | Napoleon: Rise | Reform | Wars: War of the Third Coalition • Empire | Fall
French Revolution: Index
Role of the American Revolution
Governance: New Structure
Republic of Virtue
Declaration of the Rights of Women
Committee of Public Safety
Napoleon: War of the Third Coalition