The French Revolution was a period of far-reaching social and political upheaval in France and its colonies beginning in 1789 and ending in 1799. The Revolution overthrew the monarchy; established a republic; catalyzed violent periods of political turmoil; and finally culminated in a dictatorship under Napoleon, who brought many of the revolution’s principles to areas he conquered in Western Europe and beyond. Inspired by liberal and radical ideas such as equality before the law, the Revolution made a profound impression on the course of modern history, influencing the decline of absolute monarchies while replacing them with republics and liberal democracies. Historians widely regard the Revolution as one of the most important events in human history.
The causes of the French Revolution are complex and are still debated among historians. The American Revolution helped set the stage for the events of the French Revolution, having shown France that a rebellion based on Enlightenment principles, including natural rights and equality for all citizens, against an authoritarian regime could succeed. German diplomat Friedrich von Gentz (1764-1832) observed in a treatise published in France in 1800:
The example of this undertaking, crowned with the most complete success, must have had a more immediate and powerful influence upon those, who destroyed the old government of France, than the example of any earlier European revolution: the circumstances, in which France was, at the breaking out of her revolution, had been, if not wholly, yet for the greatest part brought on by the part she had taken in that of America. In the conduct and language of most of the founders of the French revolution, it was impossible not to perceive an endeavour to imitate the course, the plans, the measures, the forms, and, in part, the language of those, who had conducted that of America; and to consider this, upon all occasions, as at once the model, and the justification of their own.
The National Assembly of France even used the American Declaration of Independence as a template when drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789. The Americans’ victory over the British may have been the “single greatest impact” on the start of the French Revolution.
Following the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War, the French government was deeply in debt. It attempted to restore its financial status through unpopular taxation schemes, which were heavily regressive. Leading up to the Revolution, years of bad harvests worsened by deregulation of the grain industry and fifty consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures in the winter of 1788/1789 inflamed popular resentment of the privileges enjoyed by the aristocracy and the Catholic clergy of the established church. Demands for change were formulated in terms of Enlightenment ideals on democracy, and contributed to the convocation of the Estates General in May 1789. During the first year of the Revolution, members of the Third Estate (commoners) took control; the Bastille was attacked in July; the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was passed in August; and the Women’s March on Versailles forced the royal court back to Paris in October. A central event of the first stage, in August 1789, was the abolition of feudalism and the old rules and privileges left over from the Ancien Régime.
The next few years featured political struggles between various liberal assemblies and supporters of the monarchy intent on thwarting major reforms, promoted by the Jacobins, led to the Insurrection of 10 August 1792 and the arrest of Louis XVI and the royal family. The Republic was proclaimed in 22 September after the first French elections and the victory at Valmy. Its goal was to unify France and to introduce the same taxes and democratic elections for more citizens. It opposed prerogatives. In a momentous event that led to international condemnation and an internal struggle in the Convention between the Girondins and Montagnards, Louis XVI was executed in January 1793.
External threats closely shaped the course of the Revolution. The French Revolutionary Wars unleashed a wave of global conflicts that extended from the Caribbean to the Middle East. Internally, popular agitation by the Sans-culottes radicalised the Revolution significantly, followed by the Insurrection at the end of May, and the rise of Maximilien Robespierre. A levée en masse, an army of volunteers to beat the external and internal enemy, culminated in a federalist revolt in the South and the West. The dictatorship imposed by the Committee of Public Safety established price controls on food and soap, introduced a secular Republican calendar, de-established the Catholic church (dechristianised society). During what was called the Reign of Terror, counter-revolutionaries were expelled, arrested or executed; and the borders of the new republic were secured from its enemies.
After the Fall of Robespierre and Thermidorian Reaction, an executive council known as the Directory assumed control of the French state in 1795. They suspended elections, repudiated debts (creating financial instability in the process), persecuted the Catholic clergy, and made significant military conquests on the Italian Peninsula.:393-7 Dogged by charges of corruption, the Directory collapsed in a coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1799. Napoleon, who ended and became the hero of the Revolution, established the Consulate and later the First French Empire.
The modern era has unfolded in the shadow of the French Revolution. Almost all future revolutionary movements looked back to the Revolution as their predecessor.:361 Its central phrases and cultural symbols, such as La Marseillaise and Liberté, fraternité, égalité, ou la mort, became the clarion call for other major upheavals in modern history, including the Russian Revolution over a century later. Some of its central documents, such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, continued to inspire movements for abolitionism and universal suffrage in the next two centuries.
The Revolution resulted in the suppression of the feudal system, emancipation of the individual, a greater division of landed property, abolition of the privileges of noble birth, and nominal establishment of equality among men. The Revolution also witnessed the birth of total war by organising the resources of France and the lives of its citizens towards the objective of national defence. Globally, the Revolution became the focal point for the development of most modern political ideologies, leading to the spread of liberalism, radicalism, nationalism, and secularism, among many others, accelerating the rise of republics and democracies. The values and institutions of the Revolution dominate French politics to this day.