The Great French Revolution Proclaims the Principles of Liberty, Fraternity and Equality unto All the People of the Earth
Louis XVI

Before we talk about a revolution it is just as well that we explain just what this word means. In the terms of a great Russian writer (and Russians ought to know what they are talking about in this field) a revolution is "a swift overthrow, in a few years, of institutions which have taken centuries to root in the soil, and seem so fixed and immovable that even the most ardent reformers hardly dare to attack them in their writings. It is the fall, the crumbling away in a brief period, of all that up to that time has composed the essence of social, religious, political and economic life in a nation."

Such a revolution took place in France in the eighteenth century when the old civilization of the country had grown stale. The king in the days of Louis XIV had become everything and was the state. The Nobility, formerly the civil servant of the federal state, found itself without any duties and became a social ornament of the royal court.

This French state of the eighteenth century, however, cost incredible sums of money. This money had to be produced in the form of taxes. Unfortunately the kings of France had not been strong enough to force the nobility and the clergy to pay their share of these taxes. Hence the taxes were paid entirely by the agricultural population. But the peasants living in dreary hovels, no longer in intimate contact with their former landlords, but victims of cruel and incompetent land agents, were going from bad to worse. Why should they work and exert themselves? Increased returns upon their land merely meant more taxes and nothing for themselves and therefore they neglected their fields as much as they dared.

Hence we have a king who wanders in empty splendor through the vast halls of his palaces, habitually followed by hungry office seekers, all of whom live upon the revenue obtained from peasants who are no better than the beasts of the fields. It is not a pleasant picture, but it is not exaggerated. There was, however, another side to the so-called "Ancien Régime" which we must keep in mind.

A wealthy middle class, closely connected with the nobility (by the usual process of the rich banker's daughter marrying the poor baron's son) and a court composed of all the most entertaining people of France, had brought the polite art of graceful living to its highest development. As the best brains of the country were not allowed to occupy themselves with questions of political economics, they spent their idle hours upon the discussion of abstract ideas.

As fashions in modes of thought and personal behaviour are quite as likely to run to extremes as fashion in dress, it was natural that the most artificial society of that day should take a tremendous interest in what they considered "the simple life." The king and the queen, the absolute and unquestioned proprietors of France, and all its colonies and dependencies, together with their courtiers, went to live in funny little country houses all dressed up as milkmaids and stable boys and played at being shepherds in a happy vale of ancient Hellas. Around them, their courtiers danced attendance, their court musicians composed lovely minuets, their court barbers devised more and more elaborate and costly headgear, until from sheer boredom and lack of real jobs, this whole artificial world of Versailles (the great show place which Louis XIV had built far away from his noisy and restless city) talked of nothing but those subjects which were furthest removed from their own lives, just as a man who is starving will talk of nothing except food.

When Voltaire, the courageous old philosopher, playwright, historian and novelist, and the great enemy of all religious and political tyranny, began to throw his bombs of criticism at everything connected with the Established Order of Things, the whole French world applauded him and his theatrical pieces played to standing room only. When Jean Jacques Rousseau waxed sentimental about primitive man and gave his contemporaries delightful descriptions of the happiness of the original inhabitants of this planet, (about whom he knew as little as he did about the children, upon whose education he was the recognized authority,) all France read his "Social Contract" and this society in which the king and the state were one, wept bitter tears when they heard Rousseau's appeal for a return to the blessed days when the real sovereignty had lain in the hands of the people and when the king had been merely the servant of his people.

When Montesquieu published his "Persian Letters" in which two distinguished Persian travelers turn the whole existing society of France topsy turvy and poke fun at everything from the king down to the lowest of his six hundred pastry cooks, the book immediately went through four editions and assured the writer thousands of readers for his famous discussion of the "Spirit of the Laws" in which the noble Baron compared the excellent English system with the backward system of France and advocated instead of an absolute monarchy the establishment of a state in which the Executive, the Legislative and the Judicial powers should be in separate hands and should work independently of each other. When Lebreton, the Parisian bookseller, announced that Messieurs Diderot, d'Alembert, Turgot and a score of other distinguished writers were going to publish an encyclopedia which was to contain "all the new ideas and the new science and the new knowledge," the response from the side of the public was most satisfactory, and when after twenty-two years the last of the twenty-eight volumes had been finished, the somewhat belated interference of the police could not repress the enthusiasm with which French society received this most important but very dangerous contribution to the discussions of the day.

Here, let me give you a little warning. When you read a novel about the French revolution or see a play or a movie, you will easily get the impression that the Revolution was the work of the rabble from the Paris slums. It was nothing of the kind. The mob appears often upon the revolutionary stage, but invariably at the instigation and under the leadership of those middle class professional men who used the hungry multitude as an efficient ally in their warfare upon the king and his court. But the fundamental ideas which caused the revolution were invented by a few brilliant minds, and they were at first introduced into the charming drawing rooms of the "Ancien Régime" to provide amiable diversion for the much bored ladies and gentlemen of his Majesty's court. These pleasant but careless people played with the dangerous fireworks of social criticism until the sparks fell through the cracks of the floor, which was old and rotten just like the rest of the building. Those sparks unfortunately landed in the basement where age old rubbish lay in great confusion. Then there was a cry of fire. But the owner of the house who was interested in everything except the management of his property, did not know how to put the small blaze out. The flame spread rapidly and the entire edifice was consumed by the conflagration, which we call the Great French Revolution.

For the sake of convenience, we can divide the French Revolution into two parts. From 1789 to 1791 there was a more or less orderly attempt to introduce a constitutional monarchy. This failed, partly through lack of good faith and stupidity on the part of the monarch himself, partly through circumstances over which nobody had any control.

From 1792 to 1799 there was a Republic and a first effort to establish a democratic form of government. But the actual outbreak of violence had been preceded by many years of unrest and many sincere but ineffectual attempts at reform.

When France had a debt of 4000 million francs and the treasury was always empty and there was not a single thing upon which new taxes could be levied, even good King Louis (who was an expert locksmith and a great hunter but a very poor statesman) felt vaguely that something ought to be done. Therefore he called for Turgot, to be his Minister of Finance. Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, Baron de l'Aulne, a man in the early sixties, a splendid representative of the fast disappearing class of landed gentry, had been a successful governor of a province and was an amateur political economist of great ability. He did his best. Unfortunately, he could not perform miracles. As it was impossible to squeeze more taxes out of the ragged peasants, it was necessary to get the necessary funds from the nobility and clergy who had never paid a centime. This made Turgot the best hated man at the court of Versailles. Furthermore he was obliged to face the enmity of Marie Antoinette, the queen, who was against everybody who dared to mention the word "economy" within her hearing. Soon Turgot was called an "unpractical visionary" and a "theoretical professor" and then of course his position became untenable. In the year 1776 he was forced to resign.

After the "professor" there came a man of Practical Business Sense. He was an industrious Swiss by the name of Necker who had made himself rich as a grain speculator and the partner in an international banking house. His ambitious wife had pushed him into the government service that she might establish a position for her daughter who afterwards as the wife of the Swedish minister in Paris, Baron de Staël, became a famous literary figure of the early nineteenth century.

Necker set to work with a fine display of zeal just as Turgot had done. In 1781 he published a careful review of the French finances. The king understood nothing of this "Compte Rendu." He had just sent troops to America to help the colonists against their common enemies, the English. This expedition proved to be unexpectedly expensive and Necker was asked to find the necessary funds. When instead of producing revenue, he published more figures and made statistics and began to use the dreary warning about "necessary economies" his days were numbered. In the year 1781 he was dismissed as an incompetent servant.

After the Professor and the Practical Business Man came the delightful type of financier who will guarantee everybody 100 per cent. per month on their money if only they will trust his own infallible system. He was Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a pushing official, who had made his career both by his industry and his complete lack of honesty and scruples. He found the country heavily indebted, but he was a clever man, willing to oblige everybody, and he invented a quick remedy. He paid the old debts by contracting new ones. This method is not new. The result since time immemorial has been disastrous. In less than three years more than 800,000,000 francs had been added to the French debt by this charming Minister of Finance who never worried and smilingly signed his name to every demand that was made by His Majesty and by his lovely Queen, who had learned the habit of spending during the days of her youth in Vienna.

At last even the Parliament of Paris (a high court of justice and not a legislative body) although by no means lacking in loyalty to their sovereign, decided that something must be done. Calonne wanted to borrow another 80,000,000 francs. It had been a bad year for the crops and the misery and hunger in the country districts were terrible. Unless something sensible were done, France would go bankrupt. The King as always was unaware of the seriousness of the situation. Would it not be a good idea to consult the representatives of the people? Since 1614 no Estates General had been called together. In view of the threatening panic there was a demand that the Estates be convened. Louis XVI however, who never could take a decision, refused to go as far as that.

To pacify the popular clamour he called together a meeting of the Notables in the year 1787. This merely meant a gathering of the best families who discussed what could and should be done, without touching their feudal and clerical privilege of tax-exemption. It is unreasonable to expect that a certain class of society shall commit political and economic suicide for the benefit of another group of fellow-citizens. The 127 Notables obstinately refused to surrender a single one of their ancient rights. The crowd in the street, being now exceedingly hungry, demanded that Necker, in whom they had confidence, be reappointed. The Notables said "No." The crowd in the street began to smash windows and do other unseemly things. The Notables fled. Calonne was dismissed.

A new colorless Minister of Finance, the Cardinal Lomenie de Brienne, was appointed and Louis, driven by the violent threats of his starving subjects, agreed to call together the old Estates General as "soon as practicable." This vague promise of course satisfied no one.

No such severe winter had been experienced for almost a century. The crops had been either destroyed by floods or had been frozen to death in the fields. All the olive trees of Provence had been killed. Private charity tried to do something but could accomplish little for eighteen million starving people. Everywhere bread riots occurred. A generation before these would have been put down by the army. But the work of the new philosophical school had begun to bear fruit. People began to understand that a shotgun is no effective remedy for a hungry stomach and even the soldiers (who came from among the people) were no longer to be depended upon. It was absolutely necessary that the king should do something definite to regain the popular goodwill, but again he hesitated.

Here and there in the provinces, little independent Republics were established by followers of the new school. The cry of "no taxation without representation" (the slogan of the American rebels a quarter of a century before) was heard among the faithful middle classes. France was threatened with general anarchy. To appease the people and to increase the royal popularity, the government unexpectedly suspended the former very strict form of censorship of books. At once a flood of ink descended upon France. Everybody, high or low, criticised and was criticised. More than 2000 pamphlets were published. Loménie de Brienne was swept away by a storm of abuse. Necker was hastily called back to placate, as best he could, the nationwide unrest. Immediately the stock market went up thirty per cent. And by common consent, people suspended judgment for a little while longer. In May of 1789 the Estates General were to assemble and then the wisdom of the entire nation would speedily solve the difficult problem of recreating the kingdom of France into a healthy and happy state.

This prevailing idea, that the combined wisdom of the people would be able to solve all difficulties, proved disastrous. It disabled all personal effort during many important months. Instead of keeping the government in his own hands at this critical moment, Necker allowed everything to drift. Hence there was a new outbreak of the acrimonious debate upon the best ways to reform the old kingdom. Everywhere the power of the police weakened. The people of the Paris suburbs, under the leadership of professional agitators, gradually began to discover their strength, and commenced to play the role which was to be theirs all through the years of the great unrest, when they acted as the brute force which was used by the actual leaders of the Revolution to secure those things which could not be obtained in a legitimate fashion.

As a sop to the peasants and the middle class, Necker decided that they should be allowed a double representation in the Estates General. Upon this subject, the Abbé Siéyès then wrote a famous pamphlet, "To what does the Third Estate Amount?" in which he came to the conclusion that the Third Estate (a name given to the middle class) ought to amount to everything, that it had not amounted to anything in the past, and that it now desired to amount to something. He expressed the sentiment of the great majority of the people who had the best interests of the country at heart.

Finally the elections took place under the worst conditions imaginable. When they were over, 308 clergymen, 285 noblemen and 621 representatives of the Third Estate packed their trunks to go to Versailles. The Third Estate was obliged to carry additional luggage. This consisted of voluminous reports called "cahiers" in which the many complaints and grievances of their constituents had been written down. The stage was set for the great final act that was to save France.

The Estates General came together on May 5th, 1789. The king was in a bad humour. The Clergy and the Nobility let it be known that they were unwilling to give up a single one of their privileges. The king ordered the three groups of representatives to meet in different rooms and discuss their grievances separately. The Third Estate refused to obey the royal command. They took a solemn oath to that effect in a squash court (hastily put in order for the purpose of this illegal meeting) on the 20th of June, 1789. They insisted that all three Estates, Nobility, Clergy and Third Estate, should meet together and so informed His Majesty. The king gave in.
The Guillotine

As the "National Assembly," the Estates General began to discuss the state of the French kingdom. The King got angry. Then again he hesitated. He said that he would never surrender his absolute power. Then he went hunting, forgot all about the cares of the state and when he returned from the chase he gave in. For it was the royal habit to do the right thing at the wrong time in the wrong way. When the people clamoured for A, the king scolded them and gave them nothing. Then, when the Palace was surrounded by a howling multitude of poor people, the king surrendered and gave his subjects what they had asked for. By this time, however, the people wanted A plus B. The comedy was repeated. When the king signed his name to the Royal Decree which granted his beloved subjects A and B they were threatening to kill the entire royal family unless they received A plus B plus C. And so on, through the whole alphabet and up to the scaffold.

Unfortunately the king was always just one letter behind. He never understood this. Even when he laid his head under the guillotine, he felt that he was a much-abused man who had received a most unwarrantable treatment at the hands of people whom he had loved to the best of his limited ability.

Historical "ifs," as I have often warned you, are never of any value. It is very easy for us to say that the monarchy might have been saved "if" Louis had been a man of greater energy and less kindness of heart. But the king was not alone. Even "if" he had possessed the ruthless strength of Napoleon, his career during these difficult days might have been easily ruined by his wife who was the daughter of Maria Theresa of Austria and who possessed all the characteristic virtues and vices of a young girl who had been brought up at the most autocratic and medieval court of that age.

She decided that some action must be taken and planned a counterrevolution. Necker was suddenly dismissed and loyal troops were called to Paris. The people, when they heard of this, stormed the fortress of the Bastille prison, and on the fourteenth of July of the year 1789, they destroyed this familiar but much-hated symbol of Autocratic Power which had long since ceased to be a political prison and was now used as the city lock-up for pickpockets and second-story men. Many of the nobles took the hint and left the country. But the king as usual did nothing. He had been hunting on the day of the fall of the Bastille and he had shot several deer and felt very much pleased.

The National Assembly now set to work and on the 4th of August, with the noise of the Parisian multitude in their ears, they abolished all privileges. This was followed on the 27th of August by the "Declaration of the Rights of Man," the famous preamble to the first French constitution. So far so good, but the court had apparently not yet learned its lesson. There was a wide-spread suspicion that the king was again trying to interfere with these reforms and as a result, on the 5th of October, there was a second riot in Paris. It spread to Versailles and the people were not pacified until they had brought the king back to his palace in Paris. They did not trust him in Versailles. They liked to have him where they could watch him and control his correspondence with his relatives in Vienna and Madrid and the other courts of Europe.
The Bastille Prison

In the Assembly meanwhile, Mirabeau, a nobleman who had become leader of the Third Estate, was beginning to put order into chaos. But before he could save the position of the king he died, on the 2nd of April of the year 1791. The king, who now began to fear for his own life, tried to escape on the 21st of June. He was recognized from his picture on a coin, was stopped near the village of Varennes by members of the National Guard, and was brought back to Paris.

In September of 1791, the first constitution of France was accepted, and the members of the National Assembly went home. On the first of October of 1791, the legislative assembly came together to continue the work of the National Assembly. In this new gathering of popular representatives there were many extremely revolutionary elements. The boldest among these were known as the Jacobins, after the old Jacobin cloister in which they held their political meetings. These young men (most of them belonging to the professional classes) made very violent speeches and when the newspapers carried these orations to Berlin and Vienna, the King of Prussia and the Emperor decided that they must do something to save their good brother and sister. They were very busy just then dividing the kingdom of Poland, where rival political factions had caused such a state of disorder that the country was at the mercy of anybody who wanted to take a couple of provinces. But they managed to send an army to invade France and deliver the king.

Then a terrible panic of fear swept throughout the land of France. All the pent-up hatred of years of hunger and suffering came to a horrible climax. The mob of Paris stormed the palace of the Tuileries. The faithful Swiss bodyguards tried to defend their master, but Louis, unable to make up his mind, gave order to "cease firing" just when the crowd was retiring. The people, drunk with blood and noise and cheap wine, murdered the Swiss to the last man, then invaded the palace, and went after Louis who had escaped into the meeting hall of the Assembly, where he was immediately suspended of his office, and from where he was taken as a prisoner to the old castle of the Temple.

But the armies of Austria and Prussia continued their advance and the panic changed into hysteria and turned men and women into wild beasts. In the first week of September of the year 1792, the crowd broke into the jails and murdered all the prisoners. The government did not interfere. The Jacobins, headed by Danton, knew that this crisis meant either the success or the failure of the revolution, and that only the most brutal audacity could save them. The Legislative Assembly was closed and on the 21st of September of the year 1792, a new National Convention came together. It was a body composed almost entirely of extreme revolutionists. The king was formally accused of high treason and was brought before the Convention. He was found guilty and by a vote of 361 to 360 (the extra vote being that of his cousin the Duke of Orleans) he was condemned to death. On the 21st of January of the year 1793, he quietly and with much dignity suffered himself to be taken to the scaffold. He had never understood what all the shooting and the fuss had been about. And he had been too proud to ask questions.
The French Revolution Invades Holland

Then the Jacobins turned against the more moderate element in the convention, the Girondists, called after their southern district, the Gironde. A special revolutionary tribunal was instituted and twenty-one of the leading Girondists were condemned to death. The others committed suicide. They were capable and honest men but too philosophical and too moderate to survive during these frightful years.

In October of the year 1793 the Constitution was suspended by the Jacobins "until peace should have been declared." All power was placed in the hands of a small committee of Public Safety, with Danton and Robespierre as its leaders. The Christian religion and the old chronology were abolished. The "Age of Reason" (of which Thomas Paine had written so eloquently during the American Revolution) had come and with it the "Terror" which for more than a year killed good and bad and indifferent people at the rate of seventy or eighty a day.

The autocratic rule of the King had been destroyed. It was succeeded by the tyranny of a few people who had such a passionate love for democratic virtue that they felt compelled to kill all those who disagreed with them. France was turned into a slaughter house. Everybody suspected everybody else. No one felt safe. Out of sheer fear, a few members of the old Convention, who knew that they were the next candidates for the scaffold, finally turned against Robespierre, who had already decapitated most of his former colleagues. Robespierre, "the only true and pure Democrat," tried to kill himself but failed. His shattered jaw was hastily bandaged and he was dragged to the guillotine. On the 27th of July, of the year 1794 (the 9th Thermidor of the year II, according to the strange chronology of the revolution), the reign of Terror came to an end, and all Paris danced with joy.

The dangerous position of France, however, made it necessary that the government remain in the hands of a few strong men, until the many enemies of the revolution should have been driven from the soil of the French fatherland. While the half-clad and half-starved revolutionary armies fought their desperate battles of the Rhine and Italy and Belgium and Egypt, and defeated every one of the enemies of the Great Revolution, five Directors were appointed, and they ruled France for four years. Then the power was vested in the hands of a successful general by the name of Napoleon Bonaparte, who became "First Consul" of France in the year 1799. And during the next fifteen years, the old European continent became the laboratory of a number of political experiments, the like of which the world had never seen before.


Study the lesson for one week.

Over the week:

  • Read and/or listen to the lesson.
  • Review the synopsis.
  • Study the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Answer the review questions.


In 18th century France, those in power were not strong enough to force the nobility and clergy to pay taxes. So the tax burden fell entirely on the poor peasantry. While the royalty and wealthy lived rich lives of extravagance, the poor suffered. Seeing an opportunity, the middle-class professionals incited the hungry poor to attack the French King and his court. Riots broke out, the Bastille prison was destroyed, the French King and Queen and many others were beheaded, and five Directors were appointed to run the government. Several years later, in 1799, the general Napoleon Bonaparte arose to become the French Emperor.


Nobility: A noble or privileged social class, historically accompanied by a hereditary title.
Clergy: Body of persons, such as ministers, sheiks, priests and rabbis, who are trained and ordained for religious service.
Peasantry: Impoverished rural farm workers, either as serfs, small freeholders or hired hands.
Tax: Money paid to the government other than for transaction-specific goods and services.
Guillotine: A machine used for the application of capital punishment by decapitation, consisting of a tall upright frame from which is suspended a heavy diagonal-edged blade.


Activity 1: Narrate the Lesson

  • After you read the lesson, narrate the lesson aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Study the Lesson Picture(s)

  • Study the lesson picture(s) and describe how they relate to the lesson.

Activity 3: Map the Lesson

  • Find France on the map of Europe.
  • Find France on the map of the world.

Activity 4: Complete Copywork, Narration, Dictation, and Coloring   

Click the crayon above. Complete page 40 of 'World History Activities for Fourth Grade.'


Question 1

Why didn't the clergy and rich nobility pay taxes in 18th century France?
1 / 4

Answer 1

They didn't pay taxes because they didn't want to, and those in charge didn't have the power to force them.
1 / 4

Question 2

Who ended up paying a majority of the taxes in 18th century France?
2 / 4

Answer 2

The poor peasantry ended up paying a majority of the taxes in 18th century France.
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Question 3

What happened to the King and Queen of France during the French Revolution?
3 / 4

Answer 3

The King and Queen of France were beheaded by guillotine.
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Question 4

Which leader rose to power to become the Emperor of France after the French Revolution?
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Answer 4

Some years after the French Revolution, the general Napoleon Bonaparte rose to become the French Emperor.
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  1. Why didn't the clergy and rich nobility pay taxes in 18th century France? They didn't pay taxes because they didn't want to, and those in charge didn't have the power to force them.
  2. Who ended up paying a majority of the taxes in 18th century France? The poor peasantry ended up paying a majority of the taxes in 18th century France.
  3. What happened to the King and Queen of France during the French Revolution? The King and Queen of France were beheaded by guillotine.
  4. Which leader rose to power to become the Emperor of France after the French Revolution? Some years after the French Revolution, the general Napoleon Bonaparte rose to become the French Emperor.