The French Revolution

The French Revolution brought about great changes in the society and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had far-reaching effects on the rest of Europe. It introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a democracy. However, it ended supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class. After the revolution began, no European kings, nobles, or other privileged groups could ever again take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of liberty and equality.  

The revolution began with a government financial crisis but quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. In one of the early events, a crowd in Paris captured the Bastille, a royal fortress and prison, which had become a symbol of oppression. A series of elected legislatures then took control of the government. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed. Thousands of others met the same fate in a period called the Reign of Terror. The revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government.  


Various social, political, and economic conditions led to the revolution in France. These conditions included much dissatisfaction among the lower and middle classes, interest in new ideas about government, and financial problems caused by the costs of wars.  

Legal divisions among social groups that had existed for hundreds of years created much discontent. According to the law, French society consisted of three groups called estates. Members of the clergy made up the first estate, nobles the second, and the rest of the people the third. The peasants, who earned very little, formed the largest group in the third estate. The third estate also included the working people of the cities and a large and prosperous middle class made up chiefly of merchants, lawyers, and government officials.  

The third estate resented certain advantages of the first two estates. The clergy and nobles did not have to pay most taxes. The third estate had to provide almost all the country's tax revenue. Many members of the middle class were also troubled by their social status. They were among the most economically important people in French society but were not recognized as such because they belonged to the third estate.  

The new ideas about government challenged France's absolute monarchy. Under this system, the king had almost unlimited authority. He governed by divine right--that is, the monarch's right to rule was thought to come from God. There were checks on the king, but these came mainly from a few groups of aristocrats in the parlements (high courts). During the 1700's, French writers called philosophes and philosophers from other countries raised new ideas about freedom. Some of these thinkers, including Jean Jacques Rousseau, suggested that the right to govern came from the people.  

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The financial crisis developed because France had gone deeply into debt to finance fighting in the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) and the American Revolution (1775-1783). By 1788, the government was almost bankrupt. The Parlement of Paris insisted that King Louis XVI could borrow more money or raise taxes only by calling a meeting of the Estates-General. This body, also called States-General, was made up of representatives of the three estates, and had last met in 1614. Unwillingly, the king called the meeting.  

The revolution begins. 

The States-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, near ...

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