The defeat in the Seven Year’s war and colonial causalities had driven France into a financial crisis. In order to avert a national bankruptcy Louis XVI.Louis XVI was King of France from 1774 until 1791 convoked the Estates-General in July 1788. Demographic growth and land shortages had lead to a grave famine among those living in rural areas. While peasants had no influence on the public life the noblesse and the clergy were exempt from tax liabilities. Throughout the previous years a new social class, the bourgeoisie, had acquired economical importance during the process of industrialisation and aimed to overcome the estate-based society using the ideas of enlightenment.
Storming of the Bastille
The third estateUntil 1789, the third estate in France had no true power in its own right, but it functioned as an advisory body to the king used the convention of the Estates-General to enforce its political demands; a ballot decided by votes and not by estates was therefore the top priority. Civil representatives became autonomous and reformed the assembly of the estates into a national assembly by the „Tennis Court OathThe Tennis Court Oath was a pledge signed by members from the Third Estate who were locked out of a meeting of the Estates-General on 20 June 1789“. The most important aims were the realisation of human rights and the installation of a constitutional stateIn a constitutional state the power of the state is limited in order to protect citizens from the arbitrary exercise of authority, later on the noblesse and the clergy were forced into joining the assembly. As Louis XVI. declared those resolutions invalid and wanted to dissolve the assembly by armed force, the revolutionary force radicalised. This led to the forcible Storming of the BastilleThe Storming of the Bastille occurred on 14 July 1789, often seen as the beginning of the French revolution.
The circumstances mentioned above led to an upheaval of the absolutistic reign, especially as the noblesse and clergy had to spare the compulsory labour and the contributions of the peasants. The feudal system was therefore abolished. After the Declaration of Human and Citizen’s rights had been passed by the national assembly on the 26th of August 1789 France was transformed into a constitutional monarchyConstitutional monarchy is a form of democratic government in which a monarch acts as a non-party political head of state in 1791. The executive powerThe executive branch executes or enforces the law remained with Louis XVI. while all other state authorities were transferred to the national assembly. The revolution however did not stop at this point. The contradiction of various political currents led to a radical change in 1792, initiating the ending of the constitutional monarchy.
The most important groups were the FeuillantsThe Feuillants consisted of monarchists and reactionaries who sat on the far right of the Legislative Assembly of 1791, the GirondistesThe Girondists campaigned for the end of the monarchy but then resisted the spiraling momentum of the Revolution and the JacobinsThe leaders of the Jacobin Club were the most radical and egalitarian group in the Revolution. They controlled the government from June 1793 to July 1794, passed a great deal of radical legislation, and hunted down and executed their opponents in the Reign of Terror. Due to social tensions, supply bottlenecks and famines the Jacobins seized control over the revolution as their demands were similar to those of the urban underclass. After Louis‘secret negotiations with other European powers were uncovered the Jacobins called for a trial due to high treason, as for them the monarchy and the revolution could not be combined. The storming of the Tuileries triggered the subversion of the royalty. In order to consolidate their power the Jacobins eliminated their political opponents during the September massacres and terminated the monarchy in the National Convention on the 21st September 1792. Louis XVI. was executed on the 21st of January 1973. RobespierreMaximilien de Robespierre was a popular member of the Jacobin Club and supported equality of rights, universal male suffrage and the establishment of a republic established a cruel dictatorship with the aid of the sans-culottesSans-culotteswere the radical left-wing partisans of the lower classes in which putative enemies were persecuted. This dictatorship remained in place until 1794 when Robespierre was assassinated by the opposition.
After the subversion of the Jacobins the Girondistes seized power and reigned as a directorate from 1759 onwards. The new constitution reformed the franchise. Additionally a military expansion took place during the Coalition Wars against several European monarchies which rejected the French revolution. The defeat in the war against the alliance of England, Austria and Russia lead to the internal crisis of the directorate. On the 9th of November 1799 General Napoleon BonaparteNapoléon Bonaparte was a French military, political leader and Emperor of the French from 1804 to 1814 seized power through a coup d’état and thus ended the era of the revolution.
As France had led Coalition Wars against parts of Europe ever since 1792 the military had obtained a vast prestige within society. Napoleon therefore owed his accession to power to his military success. He installed a military dictatorship and ended the longstanding chaos the revolution had brought. During the Napoleonic wars he conquered vast regions of Europe with his grand army. In 1804 he coroneted himself and spread the Code CivilThe Code Civil was established in 1804 and a major step in replacing the previous patchwork of feudal laws in all conquered regions, a law adjusted to the principles of the French revolution.