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The French Revolution
General Introduction to the French Revolution
In 1789, French society consisted of three social classes: the clergy, or first Estate; the nobility, or
Second Estate; and the rest of the population, who made up the Third Estate. The nation faced social
unrest, enormous debt, and food shortages. When the king summoned the Estates General to carry out
reforms, members of the Third Estate broke away and formed the National Assembly. On July 14,
1789, angry Parisians stormed the Bastille.
Popular uprisings encouraged the National Assembly to take swift action. It ended feudal privileges,
issued a declaration of rights, reorganized the Church, and established a limited monarchy. Throughout
Europe, the supporters of the Enlightenment applauded the reforms, while rulers and nobles denounced
(were against) them. The Enlightenment ideas also led to conflict between the French social classes
because the philosophes argued for a system of limited government which represented the decisions of
the majority of the people. The French nobility and the monarch were against this. The Enlightenment
also emphasized religious toleration which was not supported by the clergy (the First Estate). By 1792,
revolutionary France was at war with much of Europe.
The French Revolution, driven by leaders determined to preserve and extend the revolution, entered a
new and radical phase. During the Reign of Terror, thousands of French citizens were sent to their
deaths by Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. Meanwhile, the revolution
brought dramatic changes to many aspects of daily life.
Why were members of the Third Estate (which included bankers, merchants, industrialists, public
officials, doctors, lawyers, writers and other professionals) discontented with the conditions under
the old regime? (Note that public officials could join the nobility through their service.)
The Third Estate resented the privileges enjoyed by the other estates. Peasants suffered from poor
wages, heavy taxes, poor harvests, food shortages, unemployment, and a lack of rights (social
The Third Estate made up most of the population of France and paid all of the taxes. The first and
second estates owned 35-40% of the land.
What economic troubles did France have in 1789?
Deficit spending, made necessary by a large debit and expensive wars, weakened the economy. Other
problems included an economic recession and poor harvests.
What issues arose when Louis XVI called the Estates General in 1789?
Louis called the Estates General to try and fix the problems since he had to do something about the
financial crisis of France.France was on the verge of bankruptcy, bread riots were spreading, and
nobles were denouncing royal tyranny.
What was the significance of the storming of the Bastille?
It was the symbolic beginning of the French Revolution.
After the storming of the Bastille, the revolution became more radical.
Key decisions and events of 1788 and 1789.
1788 – France was on the brink of bankruptcy; bread riots were spreading; nobles were denouncing
tyranny, bad harvests and increased discontent.
1789 – Workers from wallpaper factory sacked owner’s home; Louis asks three estates to prepare
cahiers of grievances; Estates General convenes; Third Estate delegates declare themselves National
Assembly; Tennis Court Oath; July 14; storming of Bastille. (The Third Estate declared itself to be the
National Assembly because they were unhappy with the voting system that gave each estate one vote
instead of counting the votes of each deputy.)
6. What role did the people of Paris play in the French Revolution?
Paris was the capital and revolutionary center of France. Parisians marched on Versailles for bread and
insisted that the royal family accompany them back to the city.
7. What political, social and economic, and religious reforms were made under the National Assembly.
-Proclaimed all male citizens equal before the law
-Limited the power of the monarchy
-Established the Legislative Assembly to make laws
-Granted all tax-paying male citizens the right to elect members of the Legislative Assembly
Social and Economic
-Abolished special privileges of the nobility
-Announced an end to feudalism
-Called for taxes to be levied according to ability to pay
-Abolished guilds and forbade labor unions
-Compensated nobles for lands seized by peasants
-Declared freedom of religion
-Took over and sold Church lands
-Placed the French Catholic Church under control of the state
-Provided that bishops and priests be elected and receive government salaries
8 (a) Why did some people outside France react negatively to the French Revolution?
(b) How did these feelings lead to war?
(a) Rulers and nobles feared similar attacks on their privileges.
(b) The rulers of Prussia and Austria threatened to protect the French monarchy.