french revolution of 1789

Written by Asma Chaudhry 11:47 am Articles, International Relations, Published Content

The French Revolution of 1789

In this article, Asma Chaudhry explores the events that led to the French Revolution of 1789, the fall of the monarchy in France, and the emergence of Napoleon Bonaparte as the Emperor of France.
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Ms Asma Chaudhry graduated with a degree in Zoology from Kinnaird College for Women.

Newfound Land and Battle of Empires

Long before the French Revolution of 1789, the expansion of the French Empire towards the West began under King Francis I. King Francis I sent an Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano to explore the region of the newfound land of the Americas for an alternate route to Asia. Verrazano landed in North America in 1524.

From the middle of the 16th century, France tried to establish several colonies throughout North America but failed due to weather, disease, and conflicts with other empires i.e. Spanish and British Empires. A major French settlement on the island of Hispaniola was established under the name of Saint-Domingue.

Later, it became the richest colony in the Caribbean. The history of the Anglo-French Wars is very long, but the wars of the 1700s played a prominent role in the instability of the monarchy that led to the French Revolution of 1789. The French society had three estates; the clergy, the nobility, and the commons.

Like any other society, the upper two classes of French society exploited the overworked and starving peasants. To increase its power, France went on a Seven Years’ War with British Empire in 1756. The war ended in 1763 following the Treaty of Paris, and France lost its occupied land of North America. This land became part of British America, leaving France in financial debt.

To overcome this debt, the peasants were burdened even more. The political awareness among the masses started the Age of Enlightenment (16th and 17th centuries).

King Louis the XVI: Last in Line of Bourbon Monarchs

In 1774, Louis the XV died, and Louis the XVI became the king. He was weak and unwise to rule a nation and was manipulated easily. At that time, British colonies of America were fighting for their freedom and 12 American colonies imposed a trade boycott on Britain. Louis the XVI started financing the colonies for the American Revolution, but after independence, America did not return the borrowed money.

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The king and his aides taxed the poor to overcome the financial crisis, whereas the nobility enjoyed riches. People were not happy with the inconsistent tax policies. France faced harsh weather which destroyed the harvest and added to the financial burden. The upper class started stocking grain and wheat.

The prices of bread skyrocketed and the peasants who worked hard for the harvest were left starving. Amidst this crisis, Louis the XVI summoned the Estates-General (a meeting of three estates) which was the closest thing to the French government at that time.

Before this, the estates general had not been summoned for 175 years by any monarch. It represented all three classes and each class was given one vote regardless of the difference in population. The two votes from clergy and nobility always dismissed the one vote from peasants who roughly made up 98% of France’s population.

Revolutionaries and Attack on Bastille

This injustice made the third estate unhappy and they took matters into their own hands. They made the French Assemblée Nationale in 1789. The national assembly had many radical and revolutionary members who decided to remove the king and end the monarchy. Louis the XVI – who lived in Versailles (20 km away from Paris) – called the military out of fear and told them to take a position in Paris.

The French Revolution of 1789
The French Revolution” by tonynetone is licensed under CC BY 2.0

It was a direct threat of execution by the king of France which angered the working class. Due to this open threat and oppression, the third estate started taking up arms and formed a citizens’ militia called the National Guard. Many soldiers started to join this revolutionary side. In July 1789, the charged and angry crowd stormed and raided Hotel Les Invalides. They then marched and stormed the prison fortress Bastille and confiscated all the gunpowder.

The crowd invaded the prison and killed the governor of Bastille, Bernard de Launay, and spiked his head for the people to see. The National Assembly supported this violence and adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizens, which guaranteed liberty and equal rights to men. This declaration and support from National Assembly paved the way for the French Revolution of 1789. 

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A Constitutional Monarch

In October 1789, seven thousand women decided to confront the king and marched towards the king’s residence in Versailles. Upon arrival, people demanded an audience with the king but they were not answered. They broke into the palace with the intention of killing the queen Marie-Antoinette, but she escaped through a secret passage. During this chaos, the angry crowd killed several royal guards.

Later on, the king agreed to share his powers with the revolutionaries and decided to return to Paris to remove the gap between him and his subjects. The king was stripped of his powers by the revolutionary government. In June 1791, Louis the XVI and Marie-Antoinette disguised themselves and planned to flee to the Austrian Netherlands to take France back from the revolutionaries while working from the outside.

He failed to flee and was branded as a traitor to France. Yet some radicals were angry as to why the king was not removed totally and why he was given constitutional presence. This led to mass protests by the people. The government of Paris sent the military to contain the angry crowd, but the situation escalated and the military opened fire.

This incident exposed deep divisions between the brotherhood of revolutionaries. The moderate revolutionaries wanted to keep the king as a constitutional monarch; on the contrary, the radicals wanted the king disposed of to the guillotine.

First Republic of France: Execution of Louis the XVI

In 1792, France declared war on Austria. Monarchy was suspended and Louis the XVI was sent to prison. The legislative assembly evolved into National Convention and officially declared France the First French Republic in 1792 (it lasted until Napoleon’s declaration of the First Empire). The new republic removed all signs of a royal regime and priests were arrested or deported.

The French Republic promoted an atheist approach, replacing the Catholic Church. The government of Paris came under the control of sans-culottes who were the revolutionaries from the lower class. They started rounding up enemies of the revolution and sent them to prison. Meanwhile, the wars with external enemies pushed the troops to the frontlines.

People started to fear that the prisoners would conspire against the sans-culottes and take revenge so they attacked the prison and executed everyone belonging to the royal, aristocratic, and priest families including women and children. King Louis the XVI was also executed for treason in 1793.

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Napoleon, the Greatest Military General

The revolution did not end here, and many countries joined the war against France. France declared a military quota for every region and people were forced to fight for the French Republic. The British navy tried to seize the southern cities of France. Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to siege the city and recapture the naval bases. For his success and services, Napoleon was promoted to the rank of brigadier general.

The most infamous counter-revolution occurred in Vendée in 1793. The French Republic defeated the counter-revolutionaries by draconian means. The radicals overpowered the moderates and took control of the government. Robespierre was leading the radicals and France was under the ‘Reign of Terror’. Marie-Antoinette was executed in October 1793.

Robespierre even tried to execute many members of the national convention in 1794, but he himself was executed afterwards by them. After his death, the revolution continued for five more years till 1799. Small insurrections started to bring back the monarchy. Napoleon was later sent to Italy to lead the French army. He pushed Austrians out of Italy and started closing in on Vienna with his battle strategies.

This directed Austria to sign a peace treaty with France and Napoleon Bonaparte returned as a hero. Due to the new government being so unpopular, Napoleon staged a coup with Emmanuel Joseph and became the first Emperor of France. He promoted the Napoleonic code by empowering the legal system. The debate on whether Napoleon was good or bad for France is far from over, but one thing that’s certain is that he played a key role in the French Revolution of 1789.


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