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Each modern nation formed uniquely, with the United States of America coming to be through a break with the British Empire and the current United Kingdom gradually evolving into the country it is today.

One of the more intriguing stories of a nation forming is that of France. Learn more about the French Revolution, the causes of the French Revolution, and how the French Revolution led to the way that France is today.

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What was the French Revolution?

The French Revolution was a major historical event that began in 1789 and lasted into the 1790s as France underwent a rapid change in its political system and method of governance. Systems such as the monarchy and feudalism fell since the wider population was disgusted with how the French economy was being run. Throughout the revolution, there were several changes in governments and swings in the balance of power as the French population sought to create a nation in which they were happy to live.

As one of the most prominent events in French history, there were plenty of major names associated with the revolution. For example, Robespierre rose to power and guided the execution of thousands of suspected enemies of the people, with Napoleon and Marie Antoinette also having a significant role in the revolution.

What were the causes of the French Revolution?

There were several causes of the French Revolution, each of which inspired the broader population to drastic action. Some of these causes include:

The American Revolution

The American Revolution was primarily a conflict between the British Empire and The United States. However, as Britain’s greatest enemy, France needed to support the colonies with arms, food, and any other supplies they needed. With fundamental logistics and technology in place, the French government spent a lot of money and time supporting the American Revolution, leaving the government at home with minimal resources to support their citizens.

Excessive spending

In addition to supporting the American Revolution, France participated in several costly projects. At 19, Louis XVI took over as King of France, with the government already deeply in debt. Unable to raise taxes, the King turned to loans from wealthy foreign nations. Despite providing a fiscal surplus in the short term, using these loans meant the country needed to pay back massive sums of money in the future. The treasury was ultimately left without any money.

Environmental effects

The environment itself actively caused problems for French leadership. The horrible grain harvest, drought, and disease amongst many of the nation’s cattle led to prices skyrocketing and people being unable to buy basic food such as bread. This is another royal mistake, as Louis’ previous liberalizing of the grain market meant no stockpiles were available when the country was far more desperate in later years.

Poverty

One of the main features of any revolution is that it relies on broad popular support from the people. After all, the power of a revolution is in the fact that it has the majority of the population onside, to the extent that the vast mechanisms of the state can’t do anything to stop it. As the bulk of the French population suffered, thanks to economic issues, they took a drastic decision to overthrow the government and form their new way of doing things.

What were the significant events in the French Revolution?

After all of the causes had led to tensions spilling over in France, several major events took part throughout the revolution. Each of these events swayed the path of France’s development and led to either the death of a significant political figure or the rise of another. Some of the most prominent events in the French Revolution include:

The Third Estate

France did have some form of democracy before the revolution, but it was drastically in favor of the wealthy and powerful. The Estates General represented France’s noblemen and clergy, with the Third Estate comprising the middle class. Despite being at this meeting, the middle class was fighting against the nobles having a veto on decisions made in the meeting. The Third Estate, with 98% of the population on their side, focused on removing the entrenched powers that the other estates held.

Over time, the most significant estate could secure far more power than before. The National Assembly was formed, with all three previous estates coming into one more extensive organization. This was the first victory the people secured, but one that potentially led to far more violence in later weeks and months.

Storming the Bastille

The National Assembly kept meeting at Versailles, but the capital city of Paris seemed to take a less diplomatic approach to the issues it was facing. There were rumors of a military coup taking over the country, which would entirely undo all the hard work the people had fought for so far. On the 14th of July, rioters in Paris stormed the Bastille fortress to secure as much gunpowder and weaponry as physically possible before the military took any action.

As the Bastille fell, this brought a new wave of revolutionary sentiment. The people thought they had plenty of power, and the wave of revolution spread throughout the country, with the feudalist system falling in August of 1789. This was a strong start for the revolution and was built on rapidly by the population who successfully secured more rights and power.

Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen

Many thinkers in the field of liberty and governance, such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, have had a significant say in how France has been governed since the French Revolution. This is partly thanks to the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen. This was the first foundation for France to create a constitution, stating support for democratic principles and increasing the rights that ordinary citizens had in revolutionary France.

The National Assembly, now the National Constituent Assembly, past the first constitution in September 1791. Despite securing more citizens’ rights, many people were unhappy with the constitution, as it provided the King with a veto and the right to appoint ministers. Revolutionary sentiment grew as republicans saw an opportunity to remove the king once and for all.

Radical revolution and the Reign of Terror

In April 1792, the new Legislative Assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia, where the government believed that a counterrevolution was slowly building. Similarly, this revolutionary assembly sought to spread revolutionary sentiment throughout Europe by overthrowing governments in other countries by force. Meanwhile, the domestic revolution didn’t slow, with the King being arrested in August 1792. He was executed in January of 1793 for crimes against the state. At roughly the same time, the National Convention replaced the Legislative Assembly.

The fall of the king and war throughout Europe led to instability and violence domestically. Maximilien de Robespierre, one of the lead revolutionaries, ran the Committee of Public Safety and executed thousands of people for being enemies of the state. In June 1793, the Jacobins seized control of the Convention and instituted a new calendar while pushing for the eradication of Christianity in France.

Return to moderation

Immediately following the Reign of Terror, France returned to a more sensible form of governance. In 1795 the National Convention returned to Girondin leadership, with most representatives having survived Robespierre’s excessive violence. Keen to prevent any individual from seizing too much power, the National Convention approved a new constitution that split the legislature into two individual bodies.

The leader of the state, and holder of executive power in the country, would be the Directory. This five-member body was appointed by parliament and would, therefore, in theory, work in the interests of the people rather than themselves. Any remaining Royalists and Jacobins staunchly opposed the idea, but the military was able to step in, led by a young and ambitious Napoleon Bonaparte.

The rise of Napoleon

The theory behind the Directory is good, but in practice, the structure was far from useful. The five members could not bring the wider population in line with government policies and relied on the military to bring order throughout France. With corruption, financial crises, and discontent from the wider population impossible to ignore, there was an opportunity for someone with ambition to take advantage.

Becoming tired of the Directory’s inability to run the country, Napoleon Bonaparte staged a coup. His forces abolished the Directory, and the general appointed himself the “First Consul” of France, grasping power in the nation and effectively ending the French Revolution. Under Napoleon, France began to dominate the majority of continental Europe.

What is the legacy of the French Revolution?

The legacy of the French Revolution is somewhat complicated. If you look at the event unbiasedly and consider just that period, the French Revolution appears to be a complete failure. The country went from being run by a monarch to being run by a general, who effectively acted as a dictator with relatively little public influence in the policy-making process. Although Napoleon successfully achieved his goals and brought wealth back to France, this is not necessarily what the wider population would support.

However, if you look at the French Revolution in a wider context, there is a lot to be said about the positives that it brought. This includes having evidence that states can form democracies after times of strife and demonstrating the power that people can hold in broader contexts. France was arguably the inspiration for future revolutions, including the Russian Revolution of 1917 and Adolf Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923.