The History of the French Revolution

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The representatives of the Estates-General met in Versailles on May 5th, 1789. The nobility and the clergy sent about 300 delegates each, whereas the Third Estate sent about 600. The problem to be faced was how the delegates should vote: should each estate vote separately or as a whole? Or should each estate be voted by head, giving the Third Estate the chance to promote its interests with the help of some liberal nobles and clerics? On June 17th, the Third Estate declared itself to be a National Assembly to work on a constitution. Three days later, the delegates found their usual meeting place locked, and they moved to an indoor tennis court and swore to meet until they had drawn up a French constitution. This event became known as the Tennis Court Oath and was a truly revolutionary act since the delegates had no legal right to turn themselves into a National Assembly. Although Louis XVI ordered the delegates of the First and Second Estate to join the Third, he summoned troops around Versailles and Paris. In July and August 1789, a series of peasants revolts and urban uprisings saved the National Assembly from the king’s attempt to restore his authority.

The peasants destroyed castles and the records of the dues they had to give their lords, showing their resentment of the entire landholding system that had determined their lives. The most famous of the urban uprisings was the Storming of the Bastille on July 14th , despite the fact that only seven prisoners were imprisoned in this medieval fortress which served as state prison and armoury. The Parisian mob had not gathered to free the prisoners: it had come to demand the ammunition stored in the Bastille. When the prison governor refused to comply, the mob eventually took hold of the building after a violent battle. The governor was killed, his head carried round the streets on a spike. The Storming of the Bastille became a symbol of the French Revolution in which the monarchy was overthrown and a republic set up based on the ideas of liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Even today, the French still celebrate July 14th as a national holiday.During the agrarian revolts, panic spread throughout France that foreign troops would invade, supported by an aristocratic plot which became known as the Great Fear.

The uprisings and this fear influenced the work of the National Assembly in Versailles, leading to the abolition of the feudal rights of the nobles as well as the fiscal rights of the nobility and clergy. Many nobles started to flee as they thought that not only their property and their privileges, but also their lives were in danger. On August 26th, the National Assembly adopted the Declaration of Man and the Citizen. This document contains important ideas from the Enlightenment such as the rights of liberty, property, security, resistance to oppression, the freedom of speech and the press, and it affirmed the destruction of aristocratic privileges. The declaration also raised the important question whether the idea of equal rights for all men included women as well. Olympe de Gouge certainly thought so and published a Declaration of the Rights of Women and the Female Citizen in 1791 which contained the idea that women should have the same rights as men. Although the National Assembly ignored her ideas, this was not the only time that women influenced the course of the French Revolution. On October 5th 1789, thousands of women from Paris marched to Versailles to complain about the lack of bread.

At that time, Louis XVI had not yet endorsed the abolition of aristocratic privileges and the Declaration of Rights, but the women’s insurrection* forced the king to make up his mind and accept the changes. The next day, the royal family was brought to Paris while the women sang that they were bringing back the baker and his family as the king had also given in to their demand of bread. The National Assembly soon followed, meeting in Paris where the delegates worked on a constitution that established a limited, constitutional monarchy. In June 1791, Louis tried to escape from Paris and flee the country because he could not accept his situation. But the royal family was recognized near the border, taken back to Paris, and immediately placed under house arrest at the Tuileries. As a result of the escape attempt, the credibility of the king as a constitutional monarch had been seriously undermined. Nevertheless, on September 3rd, the new constitution was adopted by the National Assembly, and Louis XVI reigned with limited powers over France. It soon became obvious that he did not like his new role, and people started to call him “Monsieur Veto” as he vetoed many resolutions of the National Assembly and he lost his remaining credibility as a leader.

In April 1792, the king’s reputation suffered even more when France declared war on Austria. This happened because the kings of Austria and Prussia had invited other European monarchs to use force to re-establish absolute monarchy in France. Initially, the French troops did not fare well in the fighting, the price of bread rose once more, and the search for scapegoats soon began. After the Brunswick Manifesto was published the people did not have to look very hard: It became clear to them that the nobles who had fled and the king were traitors. Louis now hoped for a foreign invasion to restore him to power, but this did not happen. After a secret cupboard containing proof of Louis correspondence with foreign powers had been discovered in Tuileries Palace, the royal family was arrested and the monarchy suspended. A National Convention was chosen by all French men, not just by property-holders, to decide on the new form of government. This new constitutional body established a republic on September 21st. It also decided the fate of the king and the queen who were executed in January and October 1793. The revolution entered its second stage, a more radical stage than the first.

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