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Unit 2 - The French Revolution
Pre-revolutionary France
Topics- (The 3 Estates, King Louis XVI, Influence of the American
Revolution, France’s financial chaos)
Topic 1 - Setting the Stage
Prior to 1789, France was the center of European culture and prestige.
King Louis XVI stood at the top of both French society and government.
The nobility owned approximately 1/3 of all the land in France, occupied all
the key government positions and enjoyed a privileged lifestyle and social
status. The church owned about 10% of the land and had significant
power and influence. Then there was everyone else: the country peasants,
the poor of the cities, merchants and professionals. These people paid all
the taxes and had no voice in government. These inequities would soon
result in revolutionary changes in France.
Why then, would this country be on the verge of a Revolution?
When do people rise up against their leaders?
When they don’t like the leader
When they don’t like the policies of the leader
When they can’t find work or feed their families
When inequality drives people to push for change
Topic 2
Causes of the Revolution
Long Term – leadership, economy, the Enlightenment, social and political
A) The People of France – The Three Estates
Read – The People of France Handout or text assignment pg 23-26
Socially and politically France was divided into 3 groupings or estates.
(Summary of your reading – look to question sheet and text for more detail)
1st Estate – The Clergy
- The church is extremely powerful, influential and wealthy. It is a
small group (about 0.5% of the population) It collects the tithe
from everyone (10% tax), but pays no taxes itself.
2nd Estate – The Nobility
- The privileged elite of French society. Also exempt from paying
taxes. They had many privileges themselves and occupied the
most important positions in the army, government and church.
3rd Estate – Everyone Else
- This group makes up 98% of the French people and includes the
bourgeoisie (merchants, businessmen, professionals), urban
workers and the peasants. This group paid all of the taxes and
had no say in government.
Check In Questions
1) What would an urban worker’s concerns or fears be?
2) A member of the middle class would have things much better than
most of the population. What reasons would the middle class have
for pushing for changes?
B - Economic Crisis
Contributing to the changes, was the state of France’s finances. France
had recently fallen on hard times financially for a number of reasons:
 years of lavish spending by France’s monarchs (ex. Versailles)
 costly wars - helping the Americans in their revolution against
Great Britain, the Spanish War of Succession
 a series of poor harvests
 borrowing too much money in the 1780s.
You already know that millions of French citizens lived in great misery.
Between 1787 and 1789 financial conditions grew worse creating even
more discontent.
 trading had dropped which increase unemployment
 crop failures across Europe in 1788 led to a bread shortage and
increased prices
 a cold winter added to the misery in 1788-1789
 France’s taxation situation needed reform
The lavish lifestyles of the monarchy also had an impact. Most of the
tax burden fell upon the Third Estate who couldn’t afford any more
taxes. Changes were needed.
A line of finance ministers tried to save France from its pending
 If you were in charge of France’s finances, how could you
fix them?
Different plans were devised, including borrowing more money, and
pushing for a general tax to be placed on all land owners. Finally in the
spring of 1789 King Louis XVI decided to call a meeting of the Estates
General to discuss the country’s problems and restore order.
Estates General – was an advisory body to the king consisting of
members from all three classes. It hadn’t met since 1614 (over 170
years). Each estate had one vote and each estate met separately.
 Which two estates would likely vote the same to preserve
their control and power?
C – Impact of the Enlightenment and American Revolution
The ideas of the philosophes regarding individual freedoms, individual
potential and government structure was one long term cause of the
revolution. France’s involvement in the American Revolution against
Britain is another.
The ideas of freedom of all men, taking up arms against oppression, and
that republics were superior to a monarchy began to grow. The
success of the Americans against the British gave the French citizens
proof that these new ideas could be successful.
D) Leadership
During this time of crisis, France needed a strong leader to pull it through.
Louis XVI would be the wrong man at the wrong time. He was an
indecisive leader whose opinion changed often. He was easily influenced
by those around him. He was somewhat ignorant of the problems of his
people. He wanted to be loved by the people and as a leader, that can not
be your main objective.
People also hated his wife, Marie Antoinette. She was Austrian, a
traditional enemy of the French. She was young and impulsive. She
earned a poor reputation with the people from her extravagant spending.
Topic 3 - Immediate Causes
There are 2 immediate causes to the revolution.
An economic crisis
A Political crisis
Economic - France’s economic conditions worsened from 1787 to 1789.
A downturn in trade caused large unemployment. Crop failures caused
the price of bread to increase. A bitterly cold winter just made
everything worse heading into 1789
Political – The King and the parlements disagreed about creating new
taxes. Eventually the king decides to call a meeting of the EstatesGeneral. Each estate had high expectations of the changes they could
Topic Four – The French Revolution
“The Moderate Revolution 1789-1793”
Topics - The Meeting of the Estates General, Fall of the Bastille, Great Fear, Attempting to
Create a new France, Women’s March, Flight to Varennes)
A) – The Meeting of the Estates-General
The king saw the meeting of the Estates-General as a necessary evil in order to
pass new taxes, but the other groups saw it as a chance to change things. This
body of government had not met for over 150 years. The nobles were hoping to
wrestle some power away from the king and the Third Estate saw it as a chance to
bring out new ideas and a new system of government. Expectations were high as
the Estates General met in May 1789.
It became obvious during the first day of the meeting that Louis had
no intention of change. Louis tried to shut the Estates-General
down. The Third-Estate then delayed the meetings (strike) for 5
Some of the lower members of the First Estate abandoned their
meetings and joined with the Third Estate. High churchman, the
Abbe Sieyes, put forth a resolution calling for a National Assembly,
which would represent the will of the people.
On June 20, the members of the Third-Estate arrived to find they
were locked out of their meeting hall. In defiance, they met on the
indoor tennis court at Versailles. They vowed not to leave until a
new constitution was drawn up. This stand became known as the
Tennis Court Oath. ***The ordinary people had defied those in
power and the king himself.***
Louis threatened to dismiss the meetings and even forcibly remove
the delegates with soldiers but 4 days later conceded and ordered
the first two estates to join the National Assembly and draw up a
constitution. (June 27, 1789)
Constitution – a set of rules that outline how a government is to operate and the role and
relationship of the government and its citizens.
B) The Fall of the Bastille
The creation of a National Assembly did not end the uneasiness in Paris.
King Louis XVI had been reluctant to create the Assembly and it was a
direct challenge to his authority and power. Events multiplied rapidly.
Rumours and fear took over. Stories circulated about the King’s intention
to dissolve the National Assembly by force. The popular finance minister,
Necker, was dismissed, increasing fear. On JULY 14, 1789, events were
about to take a drastic turn.
On July 14, the event that most recognize as the spark that started the
French Revolution took place. Frightened and angry citizens were
determined to find weapons and rise up. They headed for the Bastille
which was a prison and a royal armory. The attack on the Bastille is a
significant turning point in history.
Activity – The Storming of the Bastille
1) Read the first information sheet about the attack on the Bastille.
2) Use the information sheet “The storming of the Bastille – student
worksheet” to complete the questions on the sheet.
3) Write your second journal entry, describing the events of May to
July 1789 from the viewpoint of the character you created earlier. You may
approach this is many different ways. Did the creation of a National
Assembly bring about hope? Did the events at the Estates general cause
you to fear or were you a supporter of the attempts at reform? How did
you view the storming of the Bastille? Perhaps you were even involved in
the fighting. Do you believe in violence as a method to bring about
change? Are you willing to commit your possessions, your freedom, and
possibly your life to see change in France? Write your thoughts in your
C – Creating a New France
End of Absolute Power of the Monarchy –
On July 16th, 1789 Louis XVI accepted the will of the people. He realized
that he could not rely on his army to crush the rebellion since they
supported the people. He was forced to come to an agreement with the
National Assembly. Absolute rule was destroyed in France. He accepted
the red cap and the three coloured (tricolor) cockade - combining the white
of royalty, with the blue and red of Paris.
ii) The Great Fear –
The weakening of royal authority created chaos and confusion in many
rural areas of France. In this desperate time, rumours about food
shortages, lack of order, and the possibility of the nobles trying to reinstate
the ‘old system’ caused panic. Noble’s homes, and official records were
destroyed and fear ruled the day. The old feudal order in France was over.
iii) The Days of October (1789) (The Women’s March)
King Louis still enjoyed a life of royalty out in his palace of Versailles, 11
miles outside of Paris. In Paris, however, things were still fairly unstable
and food was running low. On October 5, many of the women of Paris
marched to Versailles with a list of demands including wanting bread. Up
to 7000 women arrived at the palace with pitchforks, scythes and knives
demanding that the king return to Paris.
Think about it….
From the reading you have just completed and your knowledge of Louis
XVI, how do you feel about the royal family? Do you feel sorry for them?
Why or why not? Do you agree with the actions taken by the Paris mob?
iv) Reforming the System
a) On August 4, 1789, the National Assembly voted to abolish feudalism
and end the privileges of the nobility.
b) In late August, the Assembly issued the Declaration of the Rights of
Man and the Citizen. It stressed the idea that all men were “born
and remain free and equal in rights”.
Optional – “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen Worksheet” Internet assignment.
Complete the assigned question sheet.
c) France was still broke. To deal with the financial crisis, the Assembly
voted to take over and sell church lands. Assignats (paper bonds)
were issued as collateral.
d) The Church was also a challenge to the power of the National
Assembly. The Assembly also did something more radical; it placed
the French Catholic church under government control. This act,
called the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (1790), made bishops
and priests become elected positions who were forced to swear
allegiance to the state over the power of the Roman Catholic Church.
This caused huge problems as most clergy refused the order and
many peasants, who were loyal to the church, were confused over
the direction of the revolution.
v) Constitution of 1791
Finally in 1791 a new constitution was agreed upon.
- It gave the monarch limited powers as the executive branch of
- Louis had a temporary veto (forbid) power over new legislation.
- The National Assembly was to be elected by the upper and middle class
male citizens
- The National Assembly had all legislative powers. (The power to make
new laws)
D) Reaction of the Monarchy and Nobility
i) The Émigrés - During the chaos of 1789, many nobles and their families
(émigrés) fled France. They worked behind the scenes in neighbouring
countries, trying to find a way to overthrow the “Revolutionaries” and
restore the old order back in France. Other rulers, worried about the
example set by the French revolution, also sympathized with Louis and the
ii) Flight of the King - In June of 1791, Louis made his move. He planned to
sneak out of France and then lead the émigrés and others back to take
back their power. Louis and his family disguised themselves and made
their way out of Paris.
Read the account of the royal escape “The Flight to Varenees”
Following Louis return to Paris, it was felt that he could not be trusted and
that he would continue to work for the return to the old ways. At the same
time, France grew closer to war with Austria and Prussia. A debate began
on what was to become of Louis XVI.
Topic 5 – The Violent Revolution
(War with Prussia and Austria, Growth of Radicalism, The Death of the King, Reign of
A – The Growth of Radicalism – War with Austria and Prussia
Prussia and Austria were afraid the revolution would spread across Europe
and replace their monarchies with another form of government. They
signed the Treaty of Pillnitz declaring that they would intervene in France
militarily if supported by the other great powers of Europe. In France, the
more radical politicians in the National Assembly drummed up support and
declared war on Austria in April 1792. They were eager to defend the
gains they had made during the revolution. This war would constantly be in
the background of European events until 1815.
B) Political Change in France
During this period (especially after the King’s attempted flight), more
extreme elements took over in the National Assembly. The radicals, led by
Georges Danton, soon gained control of the Legislative assembly. After a
new set of elections, the Legislative Assembly became known as the
National Convention. (Sept 1792) One of its first acts was to abolish the
monarchy and make France a republic. A new calendar proclaimed it as
Year One of the Republic.
Revolutionary Political Clubs
Jacobins –
Girondins –
C) The September Massacres
In the fall of 1792, a new wave of fear and rumours hit Paris. Whisperings
of a revolt among 3000 prisoners of the Revolution and the fear of an
invasion by Prussia sparked an event known as the September Massacres.
An angry mob stormed the prisons and over the next five days around 1100
prisoners were killed. Fear and violence marked a new direction for the
The Trial and Death of the King
Following the creation of the republic, the new government had to decide
what to do with King Louis XVI. Some extremists such as Maximillien
Robespierre, wanted him executed right away for treason. Others believed
he deserved a fair trial. The various political clubs and parties all had their
own opinions as well. The case against Louis was pretty much decided
before the trial began. The 749 deputies of the National Convention were
to act as judge and jury.
Louis’ sentence was more difficult to reach consensus on. 361 out of the
721 deputies votes for the death penalty.
E – The Reign of Terror
The Reign of Terror defines the second phase of the revolution. France
was dealing with internal problems as well as the threat of foreign battles
as the war had expanded to include England in 1793. European monarchs
were afraid of the revolution and its ideas spreading. France remained
defiant against these outside forces.
To deal with the internal problems a Committee of Public Safety was
created. This 12 member committee made decisions about domestic policy
and foreign defense. They would do whatever they deemed necessary to
save the Revolution from failure. The Committee was led by Robespierre.
Over the next year and a half, over 12,000 people would be executed by
F - Changes under the National Convention
The Convention also pushed for new values and patriotism. Some of the
changes that took place were:
Abolish the monarchy. The year 1792 was now to be known
as Year One of the Republic. A new revolutionary calendar.
Government appointments based on a person’s abilities
instead of social status and connections.
Creation of “The Republic of Virtue” in their new society. A
new cult-like worship of a “Supreme Being” was introduced to
try to reduce the power any influence of the Church. Most
people stayed with Christianity though.
 Encouraged people to call each other by the title of “citizen”, to
emphasize everyone’s role in the new republic.
 Simple dress replaced the lavish garments of the past. There
were no longer men dressed in fancy robes and powered wigs.
 A new revolutionary anthem was created called “the Marseillese”.
It emphasized the importance of the revolution and the blood that
was spilled creating the Republic. It is still used.
 A new system of weights and measures was created based on the
decimal system. This is what most of the world now uses as
standard weights and measurements known as the Metric System.
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