Historians disagree in evaluating the factors that brought about the Revolution. To some extent at least, it came not because France was backward, but because the country's economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change. In the fixed order of the ancien régime, most bourgeois were unable to exercise commensurate political and social influence. King Louis XIV, by consolidating absolute monarchy, had destroyed the roots of feudalism; yet outward feudal forms persisted and became increasingly burdensome.
France was still governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt. For the most part, peasants were small landholders or tenant farmers, subject to feudal dues, to the royal agents indirect farming (collecting) taxes, to the corvée (forced labor), and to tithes and other impositions. Backward agricultural methods and internal tariff barriers caused recurrent food shortages, which netted fortunes to grain speculators, and rural overpopulation created land hunger.
In addition to the economic and social difficulties, the ancien régime was undermined intellectually by the apostles of the Enlightenment. Voltaire attacked the church and absolutism; Denis Diderot and the Encyclopédie advocated social utility and attacked tradition; the baron de Montesquieu made English constitutionalism fashionable; and the marquis de Condorcet preached his faith in progress. Most direct in his influence on Revolutionary thought was J. J. Rousseau, especially through his dogma of popular sovereignty. Economic reform, advocated by the physiocrats and attempted (1774-76) by A. R. J. Turgot, was thwarted by the unwillingness of privileged groups to sacrifice any privileges and by the king's failure to support strong measures.
The direct cause of the Revolution was the chaotic state of government finance. Director general of finances Jacques Necker vainly sought to restore public confidence. French participation in the American Revolution had increased the huge debt, and Necker's successor, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, called an Assembly of Notables (1787), hoping to avert bankruptcy by inducing the privileged classes to share in the financial burden. They refused in an effort to protect economic privileges.
Étienne Charles Loménie de Brienne succeeded Calonne. His attempts to procure money were thwarted by the Parlement of Paris (see parlement), and King Louis XVI was forced to agree to the calling of the States-General. Elections were ordered in 1788, and on May 5, 1789, for the first time since 1614, the States-General met at Versailles. The chief purpose of the king and of Necker, who had been recalled, was to obtain the assembly's consent to a general fiscal reform.
Each of the three estates—clergy, nobility, and the third estate, or commons—presented its particular grievances to the crown. Innumerable cahiers (lists of grievances) came pouring in from the provinces, and it became clear that sweeping political and social reforms, far exceeding the object of its meeting, were expected from the States-General. The aspirations of the bourgeoisie were expressed by Abbé Sieyès in a widely circulated pamphlet that implied that the third estate and the nation were virtually identical. The question soon arose whether the estates should meet separately and vote by order or meet jointly and vote by head (thus assuring a majority for the third estate, whose membership had been doubled).
As Louis XVI wavered, the deputies of the third estate defiantly proclaimed themselves the National Assembly (June 17); on their invitation, many members of the lower clergy and a few nobles joined them. When the king had their meeting place closed, they adjourned to an indoor tennis court, the jeu de paume, and there took an oath (June 20) not to disband until a constitution had been drawn up. On June 27 the king yielded and legalized the National Assembly. At the same time, however, he surrounded Versailles with troops and let himself be persuaded by a court faction, which included the queen, Marie Antoinette, to dismiss (July 11) Necker.
Parisians mobilized, and on July 14 stormed the Bastille fortress. Louis XVI meekly recalled Necker and went to the Hôtel de Ville in Paris, where he accepted the tricolor cockade of the Revolution from the newly formed municipal government, or commune. The national guard was organized under the marquis de Lafayette. This first outbreak of violence marked the entry of the popular classes into the Revolution. Mobilized by alarm over food shortages and economic depression, by hopes aroused with the calling of the States-General, and by the fear of an aristocratic conspiracy, peasants pillaged and burned châteaus, destroying records of feudal dues; this reaction is known as the grande peur [great fear].
On Aug. 4, the nobles and clergy in the Assembly, driven partly by fear and partly by an outburst of idealism, relinquished their privileges, abolishing in one night the feudal structure of France. Shortly afterward, the Assembly adopted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen. Rumors of counterrevolutionary court intrigues circulated, and on Oct. 5, 1789, a Parisian crowd, aroused by rising food prices, marched to Versailles and brought the king and queen, "the baker and the baker's wife," back to the Tuileries palace in Paris. The Assembly also removed to Paris, where it drafted a constitution. Completed in 1791, the constitution created a limited monarchy with a unicameral legislature elected by voters with property qualifications.
Of gravest consequence were the Assembly's antireligious measures. Church lands were nationalized (1789), religious orders suppressed (1790), and the clergy required (July, 1790) to swear to adhere to the state-controlled Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Only a bare majority (52%) of all priests took the oath; disturbances broke out, especially in W France; and Louis XVI, though forced to assent, was roused to action. Numerous princes and nobles had already fled abroad (see émigré); Louis decided to join them and to obtain foreign aid to restore his authority. The flight (June 20-21, 1791) was halted at Varennes, and the king and queen were brought back in humiliation. Louis accepted the constitution.
On Oct. 1, 1791, the Legislative Assembly convened. Some members joined the various political clubs of Paris, such as the Feuillants and Jacobins. Most deputies were middle-of-the-roaders, swayed by the more radical clubs and by the Girondists. Jacobinism was gaining in this period; "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity" became a catch phrase.
Meanwhile abroad, early sympathy for the Revolution was turning to hatred. Émigrés incited the courts of Europe to intervene; in France, war was advocated by the royalists as a means to restore the old regime, but also by many republicans, who either wished to spread the revolution abroad or hoped that the threat of invasion would rally the nation to their cause. The Feuillant, or right-wing, ministers fell and were succeeded by those later called Girondists. On Apr. 20, 1792, war was declared on Austria, and the French Revolutionary Wars began. Early reverses and rumors of treason by the king again led Parisian crowds to direct action.
An abortive insurrection of June 20, 1792, was followed by a decisive one on Aug. 10, when a crowd stormed the Tuileries and an insurrectionary commune replaced the legally elected one (see Commune of Paris). Under pressure from the commune, the Assembly suspended Louis XVI and ordered elections by universal manhood suffrage for a National Convention to draw up a new constitution. Mass arrests of royalist sympathizers were followed by the September massacres (Sept. 2-7), in which frenzied mobs entered jails throughout Paris and killed approximately 2,000 prisoners, many in grisly fashion.
On Sept. 21, 1792, the Convention held its first meeting. It immediately abolished the monarchy, set up the republic, and proceeded to try the king for treason. His conviction and execution (Jan., 1793) reinforced royalist resistance, notably in the Vendée, and, abroad, contributed to the forming of a wider coalition against France. The Convention undertook the foreign wars with vigor but was itself torn by the power struggle between the Girondists and the Mountain (Jacobins and extreme left). The Girondists were purged in June, 1793. A democratic constitution was approved by 1.8 million voters in a plebiscite, but it never came into force.
Instead of a democracy the Convention established a war dictatorship operating through the Committee of Public Safety, the Committee of General Security, and numerous agencies such as the Revolutionary Tribunal. Known to history as the Reign of Terror, this period represented the efforts of a few men to govern the country and wage war in a time of crisis. Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre dominated the new government, with Robespierre gradually gaining over Danton and others. Price and wage maximums were unevenly enforced, and acceptance of the inflated paper currency, the assignats, was made mandatory. A huge number of suspects were arrested; thousands were executed, including Marie Antoinette. A revolutionary calendar, with 10-day weeks, was adopted.
The fanatic Jacques Hébert, who had introduced the worship of a goddess of Reason, was arrested and executed in Mar., 1794, along with other so-called ultrarevolutionaries. The next month Danton and his followers, the "Indulgents," who advocated relaxation of emergency measures, were executed. To counter Hébertist influence, Robespierre proclaimed (June, 1794) the cult of the Supreme Being. France's military successes lessened the need for strong domestic measures, but Robespierre called for new purges. Fearing that the Terror would be turned against them, members of the Convention arrested Robespierre on July 27, 1794 (see Thermidor), and had him guillotined; a majority of Commune members were also executed.
The Convention drew up a new constitution, setting up the Directory and a bicameral legislature. The constitution went into effect after the royalist insurrection of Vendémiaire (Oct., 1795) had been put down by armed force. The rule of the Directory was marked by corruption, financial difficulties, political purges, and a fateful dependence on the army to maintain control. Conflict among the five directors led to the coup of 18 Fructidor (Sept. 4, 1797).
Discontent with Directory rule was increased by military reverses. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte, the hero of the Italian campaign, returned from his Egyptian expedition and, with the support of the army and several government members, overthrew the Directory on 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9) and established the Consulate. Until the Restoration of the Bourbons (1814), Napoleon (see Napoleon I) ruled France.
The French Revolution, though it seemed a failure in 1799 and appeared nullified by 1815, had far-reaching results. In France the bourgeois and landowning classes emerged as the dominant power. Feudalism was dead; social order and contractual relations were consolidated by the Code Napoléon. The Revolution unified France and enhanced the power of the national state. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars tore down the ancient structure of Europe, hastened the advent of nationalism, and inaugurated the era of modern, total warfare.
Although some historians view the Reign of Terror as an ominous precursor of modern totalitarianism, others argue that this ignores the vital role the Revolution played in establishing the precedents of such democratic institutions as elections, representative government, and constitutions. The failed attempts of the urban lower middle classes to secure economic and political gains foreshadowed the class conflicts of the 19th cent. While major historical interpretations of the French Revolution differ greatly, nearly all agree that it had an extraordinary influence on the making of the modern world.
See the older works by Guizot, Jules Michelet, Alexis de Tocqueville, Louis Blanc, Edgar Quinet, and H. A. Taine; the great modern studies by Alphonse Aulard, Albert Mathiez, and Georges Lefebvre; the diplomatic history by Albert Sorel; the socialist interpretation of Jean Jaurès; P. Gaxotte, The French Revolution (1928), a royalist account.
See also J. M. Thompson, The French Revolution (1945); N. Hampson, A Social History of the French Revolution (1963); W. Doyle, Origins of the French Revolution (1988) and The Oxford History of the French Revolution (1989); S. Schama, Citizens (1989); R. Cobb, The French and Their Revolution (1999); D. Andress, The Terror (2006).
On the historiography of the French Revolution, see P. Farmer, France Reviews Its Revolutionary Origins (1944, repr. 1963); D. Sutherland, France, 1789-1815: Revolution and Counterrevolution (1986); and F. Furet and M. Ouzouf, A Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution (tr. A. Goldhammer, 1989).
These changes were accompanied by violent turmoil, including the trial and execution of the king, vast bloodshed and repression during the Reign of Terror, and warfare involving every other major European power. Subsequent events that can be traced to the Revolution include the Napoleonic Wars, two separate restorations of the monarchy, and two additional revolutions as modern France took shape.
Adherents of most historical models identify many of the same features of the Ancien Régime as being among the causes of the Revolution. Economic factors included:
There were also social and political factors, many of which involved resentments and aspirations given focus by the rise of Enlightenment ideals:
Finally, perhaps above all, was the almost total failure of Louis XVI and his advisers to deal effectively with any of these problems.
The immediate trigger for the Revolution was King Louis XVI’s attempts to solve the government’s worsening financial situation. In February 1787, his finance minister, Loménie de Brienne, convened an Assembly of Notables, a group of nobles, clergy, bourgeoisie, and bureaucrats selected in order to bypass the parlements, special courts with the power to register royal edicts, who saw themselves as upholders of traditional constitutional constraints on the monarchy. The Controller-General of Finances, Charles Alexandre de Calonne, asked the Notables to approve a new land tax that would, for the first time, include a tax on the property of nobles and clergy. The assembly did not approve the tax, but instead demanded that Louis XVI call the Estates-General, a representative assembly of the estates of the realm, last called in 1614. On 8 August 1788, the King agreed to convene the Estates-General in May of 1789. By this time, Jacques Necker was in his second turn as finance minister.
As part of the preparations for the Estates-General, cahiers de doléances (books of grievances) were drawn up across France, listing the complaints of each of the orders. This process helped to generate an expectation of reform of some kind.
There was growing concern, however, that the government would attempt to gerrymander an assembly to its liking. To avoid this, the parlement of Paris proclaimed that the Estates-General would have to meet according to the forms observed at its last meeting. Although it would appear that the magistrates were not specifically aware of the "forms of 1614" when they made this decision, this provoked an uproar. The 1614 Estates had consisted of equal numbers of representatives of each estate, and voting had been by order, with the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (the remainder of the population) each estate receiving one vote.
Almost immediately the "Committee of Thirty", a body of liberal Parisians, began to agitate against voting by order, arguing for a doubling of the Third Estate and voting by headcount (as had already been done in various provincial assemblies, such as Grenoble). Necker agreed that the size of the Third Estate should be doubled, but the question of voting by headcount was left for the meeting of the Estates themselves. Fueled by these disputes, resentment between liberal reformers and government supporters began to grow.
Pamphlets and works by liberal nobles and clergy, including the comte d'Antraigues and the Abbé Sieyès, argued the importance of the Third Estate. As Antraigues wrote, it was "the People, and the People is the foundation of the State; it is in fact the State itself". Sieyès' famous pamphlet Qu'est-ce que le tiers état? (What is the Third Estate?), published in January 1789, took the argument a step further: "What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want to be? Something.
When the Estates-General convened in Versailles on 5 May 1789, lengthy speeches by Necker and Lamoignon, the keeper of the seals, did little to give guidance to the deputies, who were sent to separate meeting places to credential their members. The question of whether voting was ultimately to be by head or by order was again put aside for the moment, but the Third Estate now demanded that credentialing itself should take place as a group. Negotiations with the other two estates to achieve this, however, were unsuccessful, as a bare majority of the clergy and a large majority of the nobility continued to support voting by order.
On 10 June 1789 Abbé Sieyès moved that the Third Estate, now meeting as the Communes (English: "Commons"), proceed with verification of its own powers and invite the other two estates to take part, but not to wait for them. They proceeded to do so two days later, completing the process on 17 June. Then they voted a measure far more radical, declaring themselves the National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates but of "the People." They invited the other orders to join them, but made it clear they intended to conduct the nation's affairs with or without them.
In an attempt to keep control of the process and prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the closure of the Salle des États where the Assembly met, making an excuse that the carpenters needed to prepare the hall for a royal speech in two days. Weather did not allow an outdoor meeting, so the Assembly moved their deliberations to a nearby indoor real tennis court, where they proceeded to swear the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789), under which they agreed not to separate until they had given France a constitution. A majority of the representatives of the clergy soon joined them, as did 47 members of the nobility. By 27 June the royal party had overtly given in, although the military began to arrive in large numbers around Paris and Versailles. Messages of support for the Assembly poured in from Paris and other French cities. On 9 July the Assembly reconstituted itself as the National Constituent Assembly.
By this time, Necker had earned the enmity of many members of the French court for his support and guidance to the Third Estate. Marie Antoinette, the King's younger brother the Comte d'Artois, and other conservative members of the King's privy council urged him to dismiss Necker. On 11 July, after Necker suggested that the royal family live according to a budget to conserve funds, the King fired him, and completely reconstructed the finance ministry at the same time.
Many Parisians presumed Louis's actions to be the start of a royal coup by the conservatives and began open rebellion when they heard the news the next day. They were also afraid that arriving soldiers - mostly foreigners under French service rather than native French troops - had been summoned to shut down the National Constituent Assembly. The Assembly, meeting at Versailles, went into nonstop session to prevent eviction from their meeting place once again. Paris was soon consumed with riots, chaos, and widespread looting. The mobs soon had the support of the French Guard, including arms and trained soldiers, and the royal leadership essentially abandoned the city.
On 14 July, the insurgents set their eyes on the large weapons and ammunition cache inside the Bastille fortress, which also served as a symbol of tyranny by the monarchy. After several hours of combat, the prison fell that afternoon. Despite ordering a cease fire, which prevented a mutual massacre, Governor Marquis Bernard de Launay was beaten, stabbed and decapitated; his head was placed on a pike and paraded about the city. Although the Parisians released only seven prisoners (four forgers, two noblemen kept for immoral behavior, and a murder suspect), the Bastille served as a potent symbol of everything hated under the Ancien Régime. Returning to the Hôtel de Ville (city hall), the mob accused the prévôt des marchands (roughly, mayor) Jacques de Flesselles of treachery; his assassination took place en route to an ostensible trial at the Palais Royal.
The King and his military supporters backed down, at least for the time being. La Fayette took up command of the National Guard at Paris. Jean-Sylvain Bailly, president of the Assembly at the time of the Tennis Court Oath, became the city's mayor under a new governmental structure known as the commune. The King visited Paris, where, on 27 July he accepted a tricolore cockade, as cries of Vive la Nation "Long live the Nation" changed to Vive le Roi "Long live the King".
Necker was recalled to power, but his triumph was short-lived. An astute financier but a less astute politician, Necker overplayed his hand by demanding and obtaining a general amnesty, losing much of the people's favour. He also felt he could save France all by himself, despite having few ideas.
Nobles were not assured by this apparent reconciliation of King and people. They began to flee the country as émigrés, some of whom began plotting civil war within the kingdom and agitating for a European coalition against France.
By late July, insurrection and the spirit of popular sovereignty spread throughout France. In rural areas, many went beyond this: some burned title-deeds and no small number of châteaux, as part of a general agrarian insurrection known as "la Grande Peur" (the Great Fear). In addition, plotting at Versailles and the large numbers of men on the roads of France as a result of unemployment led to wild rumours and paranoia (particularly in the rural areas) that caused widespread unrest and civil disturbances and contributed to the Great Fear (Hibbert, 93).
On 4 August 1789 the National Constituent Assembly abolished feudalism, in what is known as the August Decrees, sweeping away both the seigneurial rights of the Second Estate and the tithes gathered by the First Estate. In the course of a few hours, nobles, clergy, towns, provinces, companies, and cities lost their special privileges.
Looking to the Declaration of Independence of the United States for a model, on 26 August 1789, the Assembly published the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. Like the U.S. Declaration, it comprised a statement of principles rather than a constitution with legal effect. The National Constituent Assembly functioned not only as a legislature, but also as a body to draft a new constitution.
Necker, Mounier, Lally-Tollendal and others argued unsuccessfully for a senate, with members appointed by the crown on the nomination of the people. The bulk of the nobles argued for an aristocratic upper house elected by the nobles. The popular party carried the day: France would have a single, unicameral assembly. The King retained only a "suspensive veto"; he could delay the implementation of a law, but not block it absolutely. The Assembly eventually replaced the historic provinces with 83 départements, uniformly administered and roughly equal in area and population.
Originally summoned to deal with a financial crisis, by late 1789, the Assembly had focused on other matters and only worsened the deficit. Honoré Mirabeau now led the move to address this matter, and the Assembly gave Necker complete financial dictatorship.
Fueled by rumors of a reception by the King's bodyguards 1 October 1789 in which the national cockade had been trampled upon, on 5 October 1789 crowds of women began to assemble at Parisian markets. The women first marched to the Hôtel de Ville, demanding that city officials address their concerns. The women were responding to the harsh economic situations they faced, especially bread shortages. They also demanded an end to Royalist efforts to block the National Assembly, and for the King and his administration to move to Paris as a sign of good faith in addressing the widespread poverty.
Getting unsatisfactory responses from city officials, as many as 7,000 women joined the march to Versailles, bringing with them pieces of cannon and a variety of smaller weapons. Twenty thousand National Guardsmen under the command of La Fayette responded to keep order, and members of the mob stormed the palace, killing two guards. La Fayette ultimately convinced the king to accede to the demand of the crowd that the monarchy relocate to Paris.
On 6 October 1789, the King and the royal family moved from Versailles to Paris under the protection of the National Guards, thus legitimizing the National Assembly.
The Revolution brought about a massive shifting of powers from the Roman Catholic Church to the state. Under the Ancien Régime, the Church had been the largest landowner in the country. Legislation enacted in 1790 abolished the Church's authority to levy a tax on crops, known as the dîme, cancelled special privileges for the clergy, and confiscated Church property. To no small extent, the Assembly addressed the financial crisis by having the nation take over the property of the Church (while taking on the Church's expenses), through the law of 2 December 1789. In order to rapidly monetize such an enormous amount of property, the government introduced a new paper currency, assignats, backed by the confiscated church lands. Further legislation on 13 February 1790 abolished monastic vows. The Civil Constitution of the Clergy, passed on 12 July 1790 (although not signed by the King until 26 December 1790), turned the remaining clergy into employees of the State and required that they take an oath of loyalty to the constitution, taking Gallicanism to its logical conclusion by making the Catholic Church in France a department of the state, and clergy state employees.
In response to this legislation, the archbishop of Aix and François de Bonal, the bishop of Clermont, led a walkout of clergy from the National Constituent Assembly. The pope never accepted the new arrangement, and it led to a schism between those clergy who swore the required oath and accepted the new arrangement ("jurors" or "constitutional clergy") and the "non-jurors" or "refractory priests" who refused to do so. The ensuing years saw violent repression of the clergy, including the imprisonment and massacre of priests throughout France. The Concordat of 1801 between Napoleon and the Church ended the dechristianisation period and established the rules for a relationship between the Catholic Church and the French State that lasted until it was abrogated by the Third Republic via the separation of church and state on 11 December 1905.
Factions within the Assembly began to clarify. The aristocrat Jacques Antoine Marie de Cazalès and the abbé Jean-Sifrein Maury led what would become known as the right wing, the opposition to revolution (this party sat on the right-hand side of the Assembly). The "Royalist democrats" or monarchiens, allied with Necker, inclined toward organising France along lines similar to the British constitutional model; they included Jean Joseph Mounier, the Comte de Lally-Tollendal, the comte de Clermont-Tonnerre, and Pierre Victor Malouet, comte de Virieu.
The "National Party", representing the centre or centre-left of the assembly, included Honoré Mirabeau, La Fayette, and Bailly; while Adrien Duport, Barnave and Alexandre Lameth represented somewhat more extreme views. Almost alone in his radicalism on the left was the Arras lawyer Maximilien Robespierre. Abbé Sieyès led in proposing legislation in this period and successfully forged consensus for some time between the political centre and the left. In Paris, various committees, the mayor, the assembly of representatives, and the individual districts each claimed authority independent of the others. The increasingly middle-class National Guard under La Fayette also slowly emerged as a power in its own right, as did other self-generated assemblies.
The electors had originally chosen the members of the Estates-General to serve for a single year. However, by the terms of the Tennis Court Oath, the communes had bound themselves to meet continuously until France had a constitution. Right-wing elements now argued for a new election, but Mirabeau carried the day, asserting that the status of the assembly had fundamentally changed, and that no new election should take place before completing the constitution.
In late 1790, several small counter-revolutionary uprisings broke out and efforts took place to turn all or part of the army against the Revolution. These uniformly failed. The royal court "encouraged every anti-revolutionary enterprise and avowed none."
The army faced considerable internal turmoil: General Bouillé successfully put down a small rebellion, which added to his (accurate) reputation for counter-revolutionary sympathies. The new military code, under which promotion depended on seniority and proven competence (rather than on nobility) alienated some of the existing officer corps, who joined the ranks of the émigrés or became counter-revolutionaries from within.
This period saw the rise of the political "clubs" in French politics, foremost among these the Jacobin Club: according to the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, 152 clubs had affiliated with the Jacobins by 10 August 1790. As the Jacobins became more of a broad popular organisation, some of its founders abandoned it to form the Club of '89. Royalists established first the short-lived Club des Impartiaux and later the Club Monarchique. The latter attempted unsuccessfully to curry public favour by distributing bread. Nonetheless, they became the frequent target of protests and even riots, and the Paris municipal authorities finally closed down the Club Monarchique in January 1791.
Amidst these intrigues, the Assembly continued to work on developing a constitution. A new judicial organisation made all magistracies temporary and independent of the throne. The legislators abolished hereditary offices, except for the monarchy itself. Jury trials started for criminal cases. The King would have the unique power to propose war, with the legislature then deciding whether to declare war. The Assembly abolished all internal trade barriers and suppressed guilds, masterships, and workers' organisations: any individual gained the right to practice a trade through the purchase of a license; strikes became illegal.
In the winter of 1791, the Assembly considered, for the first time, legislation against the émigrés. The debate pitted the safety of the State against the liberty of individuals to leave. Mirabeau carried the day against the measure, which he referred to as "worthy of being placed in the code of Draco". But Mirabeau died on 2 April 1791. In Mignet's words, "No one succeeded him in power and popularity" and, before the end of the year, the new Legislative Assembly would adopt this "draconian" measure.
Louis XVI, opposed to the course of the Revolution, but rejecting the potentially treacherous aid of the other monarchs of Europe, cast his lot with General Bouillé, who condemned both the emigration and the assembly, and promised him refuge and support in his camp at Montmédy. On the night of 20 June 1791 the royal family fled the Tuileries wearing the clothes of servants, while their servants dressed as nobles.
However, the next day the King was recognised and arrested at Varennes (in the Meuse département) late on 21 June. He and his family were paraded back to Paris under guard, still dressed as servants. Pétion, Latour-Maubourg, and Antoine Pierre Joseph Marie Barnave, representing the Assembly, met the royal family at Épernay and returned with them. From this time, Barnave became a counselor and supporter of the royal family. When they reached Paris, the crowd remained silent. The Assembly provisionally suspended the King. He and Queen Marie Antoinette remained held under guard.
Jacques Pierre Brissot drafted a petition, insisting that in the eyes of the nation Louis XVI was deposed since his flight. An immense crowd gathered in the Champ de Mars to sign the petition. Georges Danton and Camille Desmoulins gave fiery speeches. The Assembly called for the municipal authorities to "preserve public order". The National Guard under La Fayette's command confronted the crowd. The soldiers first responded to a barrage of stones by firing in the air; but the crowd did not back down, and La Fayette ordered his men to fire into the crowd, thus killing as many as 50 people.
In the wake of this massacre the authorities closed many of the patriotic clubs, as well as radical newspapers such as Jean-Paul Marat's L'Ami du Peuple. Danton fled to England; Desmoulins and Marat went into hiding.
Meanwhile, a new threat arose from abroad: Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II, Frederick William II of Prussia, and the King's brother Charles-Philippe, comte d'Artois issued the Declaration of Pillnitz which considered the cause of Louis XVI as their own, demanded his total liberty and the dissolution of the Assembly, and promised an invasion of France on his behalf if the revolutionary authorities refused its conditions.
If anything, the declaration further imperiled Louis. The French people expressed no respect for the dictates of foreign monarchs, and the threat of force merely caused the militarisation of the frontiers.
Even before his "Flight to Varennes", the Assembly members had determined to debar themselves from the legislature that would succeed them, the Legislative Assembly. They now gathered the various constitutional laws they had passed into a single constitution, showed remarkable strength in choosing not to use this as an occasion for major revisions, and submitted it to the recently restored Louis XVI, who accepted it, writing "I engage to maintain it at home, to defend it from all attacks from abroad, and to cause its execution by all the means it places at my disposal". The King addressed the Assembly and received enthusiastic applause from members and spectators. The Assembly set the end of its term for 29 September 1791.
Mignet argued that the "constitution of 1791... was the work of the middle class, then the strongest; for, as is well known, the predominant force ever takes possession of institutions... In this constitution the people was the source of all powers, but it exercised none.
On the night of 10 August 1792, insurgents, supported by a new revolutionary Paris Commune, assailed the Tuileries. The King and queen ended up prisoners and a rump session of the Legislative Assembly suspended the monarchy: little more than a third of the deputies were present, almost all of them Jacobins.
What remained of a national government depended on the support of the insurrectionary Commune. The Commune sent gangs into the prisons to try arbitrarily and butcher 1400 victims, and addressed a circular letter to the other cities of France inviting them to follow this example. The Assembly could offer only feeble resistance. This situation persisted until the Convention, charged with writing a new constitution, met on 20 September 1792 and became the new de facto government of France. The next day it abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. This date was later retroactively adopted as the beginning of Year One of the French Republican Calendar.
In the Brunswick Manifesto, the Imperial and Prussian armies threatened retaliation on the French population if it were to resist their advance or the reinstatement of the monarchy. This made Louis appear to be conspiring with the enemies of France. 17 January 1793 saw Louis condemned to death for "conspiracy against the public liberty and the general safety" by a close majority in Convention: 361 voted to execute the king, 288 voted against, and another 72 voted to execute him subject to a variety of delaying conditions. The 21 January execution led to more wars with other European countries. Louis' Austrian-born queen, Marie Antoinette, would follow him to the guillotine on 16 October.
When war went badly, prices rose and the sans-culottes — poor labourers and radical Jacobins — rioted; counter-revolutionary activities began in some regions. This encouraged the Jacobins to seize power through a parliamentary coup, backed up by force effected by mobilising public support against the Girondist faction, and by utilising the mob power of the Parisian sans-culottes. An alliance of Jacobin and sans-culottes elements thus became the effective centre of the new government. Policy became considerably more radical.
The Committee of Public Safety came under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, a lawyer, and the Jacobins unleashed the Reign of Terror (1793-1794). According to archival records, at least 16,594 people died under the guillotine or otherwise after accusations of counter-revolutionary activities. A number of historians note that as many as 40,000 accused prisoners may have been summarily executed without trial or died awaiting trial. The slightest hint of counter-revolutionary thoughts or activities (or, as in the case of Jacques Hébert, revolutionary zeal exceeding that of those in power) could place one under suspicion, and trials did not always proceed according to contemporary standards of due process.
On 2 June, Paris sections — encouraged by the enragés ("enraged ones") Jacques Roux and Jacques Hébert — took over the Convention, calling for administrative and political purges, a low fixed price for bread, and a limitation of the electoral franchise to "sans-culottes" alone. With the backing of the National Guard, they managed to convince the Convention to arrest 31 Girondin leaders, including Jacques Pierre Brissot. Following these arrests, the Jacobins gained control of the Committee of Public Safety on 10 June, installing the revolutionary dictatorship. On 13 July, the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat—a Jacobin leader and journalist known for his bloodthirsty rhetoric—by Charlotte Corday, a Girondin, resulted in further increase of Jacobin political influence. Georges Danton, the leader of the August 1792 uprising against the King, having the image of a man who enjoyed luxuries, was removed from the Committee and on 27 July, Robespierre, "the Incorruptible", made his entrance, quickly becoming the most influential member of the Committee as it moved to take radical measures against the Revolution's domestic and foreign enemies.
Meanwhile, on 24 June, the Convention adopted the first republican constitution of France, variously referred to as the French Constitution of 1793 or Constitution of the Year I. It was ratified by public referendum, but never applied, because normal legal processes were suspended before it could take effect.
In Vendée, peasants revolted against the French Revolutionary government in 1793. They resented the changes imposed on the Roman Catholic Church by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790) and broke into open revolt in defiance of the Revolutionary government's military conscription. This became a guerrilla war, known as the Revolt in the Vendée, led at the outset by an underground faction called the Chouans.
Facing local revolts and foreign invasions in both the East and West of the country, the most urgent government business was the war. On 17 August, the Convention voted for general conscription, the levée en masse, which mobilized all citizens to serve as soldiers or suppliers in the war effort. On 5 September, the Convention, pressured by the people of Paris, institutionalized The Terror: systematic and lethal repression of perceived enemies within the country.
The result was a policy through which the state used violent repression to crush resistance to the government. Under control of the effectively dictatorial Committee, the Convention quickly enacted more legislation. On 9 September, the Convention established sans-culottes paramilitary forces, the revolutionary armies, to force farmers to surrender grain demanded by the government. On 17 September, the Law of Suspects was passed, which authorized the charging of counter-revolutionaries with vaguely defined crimes against liberty. On 29 September, the Convention extended price-fixing from grain and bread to other essential goods, and also fixed wages.
The guillotine became the symbol of a string of executions: Louis XVI had already been guillotined before the start of the terror; Queen Marie Antoinette, the Girondins, Philippe Égalité (despite his vote for the death of the King), Madame Roland and many others were executed by guillotine. The Revolutionary Tribunal summarily condemned thousands of people to death by the guillotine, while mobs beat other victims to death. Sometimes people died for their political opinions or actions, but many for little reason beyond mere suspicion, or because some others had a stake in getting rid of them. Most of the victims received an unceremonious trip to the guillotine in an open wooden cart (the tumbrel). Loaded onto these carts, the victims would proceed through throngs of jeering men and women.
Another anti-clerical uprising was made possible by the installment of the Revolutionary Calendar on 24 October. Against Robespierre's concepts of Deism and Virtue, Hébert's (and Chaumette's) atheist movement initiated a religious campaign to dechristianize society. The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess "Reason" in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.
The Reign of Terror enabled the revolutionary government to avoid military defeat. The Jacobins expanded the size of the army, and Carnot replaced many aristocratic officers with younger soldiers who had demonstrated their ability and patriotism. The Republican army was able to throw back the Austrians, Prussians, British, and Spanish. At the end of 1793, the army began to prevail and revolts were defeated with ease. The Ventôse Decrees (February–March 1794) proposed the confiscation of the goods of exiles and opponents of the Revolution, and their redistribution to the needy.
Because dissent was now regarded as counterrevolutionary, extremist enragés such as Hébert and moderate Montagnard indulgents such as Danton were guillotined in the spring of 1794. On 7 June Robespierre, who had previously condemned the Cult of Reason, advocated a new state religion and recommended that the Convention acknowledge the existence of God. On the next day, the worship of the deistic Supreme Being was inaugurated as an official aspect of the Revolution. Compared with Hébert's popular festivals, this austere new religion of Virtue was received with signs of hostility by an amazed Parisian public.
In 1794, Robespierre had ultra-radicals and moderate Jacobins executed, markedly eroding his own popular support. On 27 July 1794, the Thermidorian Reaction led to the arrest and execution of Robespierre and Louis de Saint-Just. The new government was predominantly made up of Girondists who had survived the Terror, and after taking power, they took revenge as well by persecuting even those Jacobins who had helped to overthrow Robespierre, banning the Jacobin Club, and executing many of its former members in what was known as the White Terror.
In the wake of excesses of the Terror, the Convention approved the new "Constitution of the Year III" on 22 August 1795. A French plebiscite ratified the document, with about 1,057,000 votes for the constitution and 49,000 against. The results of the voting were announced on 23 September 1795, and the new constitution took effect on 27 September 1795.
The new constitution created the Directoire (Directory) and the first bicameral legislature in French history. The parliament consisted of 500 representatives — le Conseil des Cinq-Cents (the Council of the Five Hundred) — and 250 senators — le Conseil des Anciens (the Council of Elders). Executive power went to five "directors," named annually by the Conseil des Anciens from a list submitted by the le Conseil des Cinq-Cents.
With the establishment of the Directory, contemporary observers might have assumed that the Revolution was finished. Citizens of the war-weary nation wanted stability, peace, and an end to conditions that at times bordered on chaos. Those who wished to restore Louis XVIII and the Ancien Régime and those who would have renewed the Reign of Terror were insignificant in number. The possibility of foreign interference had vanished with the failure of the First Coalition. Nevertheless, the four years of the Directory were a time of arbitrary government and chronic disquiet. The earlier atrocities had made confidence or goodwill between parties impossible. The same instinct of self-preservation which had led the members of the Convention to claim so large a part in the new legislature and the whole of the Directory impelled them to keep their predominance.
As many French citizens distrusted the Directory, the directors could achieve their purposes only by extraordinary means. They habitually disregarded the terms of the constitution, and, even when the elections that they rigged went against them, the directors routinely used draconian police measures to quell dissent. Moreover, the Directory used war as the best expedient for prolonging their power, and the directors were thus driven to rely on the armies, which also desired war and grew less and less civic-minded.
Other reasons influenced them in this direction. State finances during the earlier phases of the Revolution had been so thoroughly ruined that the government could not have met its expenses without the plunder and the tribute of foreign countries. If peace were made, the armies would return home and the directors would have to face the exasperation of the rank-and-file who had lost their livelihood, as well as the ambition of generals who could, in a moment, brush them aside. Barras and Rewbell were notoriously corrupt themselves and screened corruption in others. The patronage of the directors was ill-bestowed, and the general maladministration heightened their unpopularity.
The constitutional party in the legislature desired toleration of the nonjuring clergy, the repeal of the laws against the relatives of the émigrés, and some merciful discrimination toward the émigrés themselves. The directors baffled all such endeavours. On the other hand, the socialist conspiracy of Babeuf was easily quelled. Little was done to improve the finances, and the assignats continued to fall in value.
The new régime met opposition from remaining Jacobins and the royalists. The army suppressed riots and counter-revolutionary activities. In this way the army and its successful general, Napoleon Bonaparte eventually gained much power. On 9 November 1799 (18 Brumaire of the Year VIII) Bonaparte staged the coup of 18 Brumaire which installed the Consulate; this effectively led to his dictatorship and eventually (in 1804) to his proclamation as Empereur (emperor), which brought to a close the specifically republican phase of the French Revolution.
Historian François Furet in his work, Le Passé d'une illusion (1995) (The Passing of An Illusion (1999) in English translation) explores in detail the similarities between the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution of 1917 more than a century later, arguing that the former was taken as a model by Russian revolutionaries. This is in partial contrast with the Marxist tradition, which has usually claimed that the 1871 Paris Commune was the Bolsheviks' primary inspiration source.
A contributing factor to the Revolution was the considerable increases in poverty in the preceding years. Some scholars trace this to several years of recurrent weather aberrations, caused by the Laki eruption of 1783 and the severe El Niño effects that were to follow.