Feudalism and Unfair Taxation

  • No one factor was directly responsible for French Revolution
  • Feudal oppression and fiscal mismanagement contributed to a France on verge of revolt
  • Number of financial advisors reviewed weakened French treasury with same conclusion à France needed a radical change in tax system
  • Charles de Calonne suggested that France begin taxing previously exempt nobility
  • Nobility refused, even after Calonne pleaded with them during the Assembly of Notables in 1787
  • Financial ruin seemed imminent

The Estates-General

  • In a final act of desperation, Louis XVI decided in 1789 to convene the Estates-General
  • If the Estates-General could agree on a tax solution, it would be implemented
  • Since the clergy and nobility were tax-exempt, the attainment of any such solution was unlikely
  • Outdated rules of order for Estates-General gave each estate a single vote
  • Feuds quickly broke out over this disparity and would prove to be irreconcilable
  • Realizing that its numbers gave it an advantage, Third Estate declared itself the National Assembly
  • Within days, many members of other two estates switched allegiances to this revolutionary new assembly à majority of representatives of clergy and forty-seven members of the nobility

The Bastille and the Great Fear

  • National Assembly members took the Tennis Court Oath, swearing that they would not relent in their efforts until a new constitution had been agreed upon
  • National Assembly’s revolutionary spirit galvanized France, manifested in a number of different ways:

o    In Paris, citizens stormed the city’s largest prison, the Bastille, in pursuit of arms

o    In countryside, peasants and farmers revolted against their feudal contracts by attacking  manors and estates of their landlords; dubbed “Great Fear, these rural attacks continued until early August issuing of August Decrees, which freed peasants from their oppressive contracts

  • Shortly thereafter, National Assembly released Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which established a proper judicial code and autonomy of the French people

Rifts in the Assembly

  • Though National Assembly did succeed in drafting a constitution, relative peace was short-lived
  • A rift slowly grew between radical and moderate assembly members, while the common labourers and workers began to feel overlooked
  • When Louis XVI was caught in a foiled escape plot, the assembly became especially divided
  • The moderate Girondins took a stance in favour of retaining the constitutional monarchy, while the radical Jacobins wanted the king completely out of the picture
  • Outside of France, some neighbouring countries feared that France’s revolutionary spirit would spread beyond French land à in response, they issued the Declaration of Pillnitz, which insisted that the French return Louis XVI to the throne
  • French leaders interpreted the declaration as hostile, so the Girondin-led assembly declared war on Austria and Prussia

The Reign of Terror

  • National Convention abolished monarchy – declared French  republic
  • In January 1793, National Convention tried and executed Louis XVI on the grounds of treason
  • Despite creation of Committee of Public Safety, war with Austria and Prussia went poorly and foreign forces pressed into French territory
  • Enraged citizens overthrew the Girondin-led National Convention, and the Jacobins, led by Maximilien Robespierre, took control
  • Backed by new Constitution of 1793, Robespierre and Committee conscripted military and implemented laws to stabilize economy
  • For a time, it seemed that France’s fortunes might be changing, but Robespierre, growing increasing paranoid about counterrevolutionary influences, embarked upon a Reign of Terror in late 1793–1794, during which he had more than 15,000 people executed at the guillotine.
  • When French army successfully removed foreign invaders and economy finally stabilized, Robespierre no longer had any justification for his extreme actions, and he himself was arrested in July 1794 and executed

The Thermidorian Reaction and the Directory

  • Era following ousting of Robespierre was known as Thermidorian Reaction, and a period of governmental restructuring began, leading to new Constitution of 1795 and a significantly more conservative National Convention
  • To control executive responsibilities and appointments, the Directory was formed
  • Though it had no legislative abilities, the Directory’s abuse of power soon came to rival that of any of the tyrannous revolutionaries France had faced


  • Meanwhile, Committee of Public Safety’s war effort was realizing unimaginable success
  • French armies, especially those led by young general Napoleon Bonaparte, were making progress in nearly every direction
  • Napoleon’s forces drove through Italy and reached as far as Egypt before facing a deflating defeat
  • Defeated, and having received word of political upheavals in France, Napoleon returned to Paris
  • He arrived in time to lead a coup against the Directory in 1799, eventually stepping up and naming himself “first consul”—effectively, the leader of France
  • With Napoleon at the helm, Revolution ended, and France entered a fifteen-year period of military rule
author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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