French Revolution: Summary, Causes & Phases

The painting portrays a dramatic scene from the French Revolution, with two French noblemen being led through a crowded Paris street by revolutionaries. The noblemen, dressed in fine clothing with white stockings and buckled shoes, appear resolute yet concerned, as they are escorted by a group of men wearing simpler, more austere clothing. The crowd surrounding them is dense and diverse, with some people raising their fists and waving the tricolor flag of revolutionary France. The expressions on the faces of the crowd range from anger and accusation to curiosity and concern. The cobbled street and the buildings on either side suggest an urban setting during a time of upheaval. The sky is overcast, adding to the tension of the moment. The scene captures the tumultuous period when the power dynamics of French society were being dramatically transformed.
French noblemen being taken away by revolutionaries. © CS Media.

The French Revolution (1789-1799) was a period of major changes in France. It was caused by a series of crises in the country, which provided the backdrop for the proliferation of ideas from the Enlightenment. It began when the bourgeoisie wanted to get rid of the privileges that were granted to clergymen and noblemen, but it soon turned into something much bigger. The Revolution would institute a constitutional monarchy in France, then it would abolish the monarchy altogether. Meanwhile, foreign powers would try to stop the revolutionary tide, in vain. The French Revolution would open up cracks in the modern European states and would end in 1799, with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power.

According to the historian Eric Hobsbawm in the book Age of Revolution, the French Revolution was the most important of its time, because of a few peculiar characteristics that it had. It happened in Europe’s most powerful and populous country, besides Russia. Also, it involved the masses and it was “immeasurably more radical than any comparable upheaval”. Finally, it was an ecumenical revolution, because its ideals would reverberate all over the world.

Summary of the French Revolution

  • It was caused by a series of political, social, economic and administrative crisis that upset the absolutist reign of Louis XVI.
  • It began when the government wanted to tax clergymen and noblemen, both rejected it, and the common people wanted to institute a French Constitution, so as to limit the powers and privileges of the upper classes.
  • After storming the Bastille, the common people divided into loosely defined factions: Girondins (the Right), Jacobins (the Left), The Plain or The Marsh (the Center) and Sans-Culottes (the Far Left).
  • The 1st phase of the Revolution was the National Assembly, dominated by the Girondins, which instituted a Constitutional Monarchy and abolished certain class privileges.
  • The 2nd phase of the Revolution was the National Convention, dominated by the Jacobins and the Sans-Culottes, which instituted a Republic and introduced radical measures, such as mass executions (the Reign of Terror).
  • The 3rd and last phase of the Revolution was the Directory, dominated by the Girondins, which kept the Republic, but abolished most radical measures of the preceding period. While the Directory was a domestic failure, it won several wars against foreign adversaries. These victories would strengthen the public image of the Army, particularly that of Napoleon Bonaparte.
  • Finally, Napoleon realized his popularity and profited from it to stage a coup, ending the French Revolution and beginning the Napoleonic Era.

Causes of the Revolution

In the years preceding 1789, France had been going through tremendous crises in all aspects of life. These issues reinforced one another and helped to undermine the stability of the monarchical regime under King Louis XVI.

  • Political crisis: Ever since the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the Sun King, the French adopted a very repressive strand of European absolutism. The monarch ruled over everything and the opposition was never allowed to prosper. The Sun King was succeeded by Louis XV (1715-1774) and Louis XVI (1774-1792). The latter had little rapport with French society, what was exemplified by social rejection of Queen Marie Antoinette — being told peasants had no bread, she reportedly replied “Let them eat cake”, but there is no evidence of that. The opposition to the royals would lead to the dissemination of extremely radical ideas from the Enlightenment.
  • Social crisis: French society was brutally unequal. The First Estate (the clergy) and the Second Estate (the nobility) comprised a tiny minority of the population, but they had some privileges: they had land to spare and did not pay taxes. In the meantime, the Third Estate financed both the government and the other two estates. It was composed of peasants, urban workers, poor priests and the bourgeoisie, which had more economic power than the others, but remained devoid of political power. As the merchant class rose, it felt the need to abolish social privileges enshrined by the regime.
  • Economic crisis: For much time, people thought that the expenses incurred by the clergy and the nobility strained the budget of the state. Today, we know that these expenses were relatively insignificant, and that the economic woes of pre-revolutionary France had other causes. First, the French engaged in conflicts like the Seven Years’ War, and they helped the United States to become independent — both at a major cost. Second, French manufacture was disrupted by the British following the celebration of a trade deal between them, the Eden Agreement. Third, a devastating hailstorm and a severe winter fell upon France in 1788-1789, resulting in a very bad harvest and in the peasants’ famine. Finally, noblemen had little to celebrate, for they had huge amounts of debt owed to the bourgeoisie.
  • Administrative crisis: The French state needed to be reformed, because expenditures were out of control while revenue fell behind. Some ministers and counselors attempted to overhaul state affairs, but their efforts were thwarted. A textbook case is that of Anne Robert Jacques Turgot, an economist who served as Controller-General of Finances. As an advocate for Physiocracy, he tried to clamp down on cushy government jobs (sinecures) and public pensions. However, his liberalizing policies had scant support from the rest of the government and from the market. In 1776, he would be pressured to hand over his resignation from the post.

According to the historian Michel Vovelle, the French Revolution can be seen in two ways. One of them is as a “poverty revolution”, considering that peasants lived in a precarious state and decided to take radical action following increases in the prices of foodstuffs. The other one is as a “prosperity revolution”, considering that the bourgeoisie was the one responsible for taking the initiative, because it wanted to ensure the continuity of its own prosperity. Some authors, such as Edward Burns, favor the latter point of view, as they emphasize that the poor would only join the Revolution after it was sparked by the bourgeoisie.

The Beginning: Estates General and Bastille

In 1787, the French state was facing increasing amounts of expenditures, and its worrying levels of debt made it unlikely that private creditors would foot the bill. All governmental revenues came from the Third Estate, but they were insufficient. That is why Charles Alexandre de Calonne, a liberal minister, wanted to begin collecting taxes from the clergy and the nobility. Given that both of them had enormous fortunes and abundant lands, such a measure would likely solve France’s financial troubles. Thus, Calonne handpicked an Assembly of Notables to approve the new taxes, but his plan fell apart when noblemen rejected the idea.

At the request of the Assembly of Notables, Louis XVI summoned the Estates General, a parliament that represented the estates of the realm and that merely advised the monarch. Rarely had this institution been summoned in French history, so the mere act of assembling it speaks volumes about the quagmire in which French politics found itself. The Estates General convened in 1789, at first granting one vote for each of the three social estates. Accordingly, the clergy and the nobility outvoted the common people by 2×1 and dismissed the proposal to introduce taxes that would negatively affect them.

This is a painting by Auguste Couder that meticulously captures the commencement of the Estates-General in Versailles at the dawn of the French Revolution. The grand hall is filled with light, emphasizing the detailed architecture and the opulent decoration of the era. Multiple groups are depicted: the clergy in white robes, the nobility in opulent attire, and the commoners, appearing more modestly dressed. The focal point is the center, where a speaker stands before the assembly, addressing the gathered estates. King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette are portrayed seated in a balcony above, surrounded by courtiers and dignitaries. The assembly members, arrayed in benches according to their respective estates, are shown in various states of attention and discussion, reflecting the social and political tensions of the time. The atmosphere is one of anticipation and gravity, as this meeting would set the stage for monumental changes in French society.
“Opening session of the General Assembly, 5 May 1789”, by Auguste Couder, showing the inauguration of the Estates General. Public domain image.

The Third Estate first reacted by requesting a change in the voting rules, so that they could ally with dissident clergymen and noblemen. However, not only did Louis XVI reject this proposal, but he also engaged in retaliatory measures against the Estates General. The King emphasized the separation of the three estates, annulled the body’s decrees, and dictated what it should approve instead. When that was not enough to quell the opposition, he closed the Estates General.

By now, both ordinary people and the bourgeoisie had no intention to stop reorganizing French politics, economy and society. Therefore, on 20 June 1789, representatives of the Third Estate reconvened in a nearby tennis court and vowed to negotiate and institute a constitution limiting the king’s power. Of all 577 representatives, only one did not join the Tennis Court Oath: Joseph Martin-Dauch, who decided that he would follow the monarch’s orders.

Initially, Louis XVI felt the social pressure and acquiesced to the plan to elaborate a constitution. Nevertheless, while the constituents discussed, there was the constant fear that Louis XVI would order a military strike on the assembly. When it became public that troops loyal to the monarchy were being assembled, the Third Estate carried out the storming of the Bastille — an almost abandoned prison that remained a symbol of royal power. The revolutionaries took up arms and began to fight against the monarchy, starting off the French Revolution.

Political Divisions within Revolutionary France

During the French revolution, the Third Estate split into various groups. Each of them tended to a different part of the political spectrum, but none of them were organized political parties. Rather, they were sets of loosely associated people who shared ideological beliefs. These were the most important groups:

  • Girondins: They were members of the upper bourgeoisie, like independent professionals and members of the middle class. They usually sat at the rightmost seats whenever the Third Estate convened, and for that reason their ideas became known as the ideas of the Right. They defended moderate policies such as adopting economic liberalism and keeping Louis XVI in power, although restrained by a constitution.
  • Jacobins: They were members of the lower bourgeoisie, like small merchants and urban workers at manufacturing plants. They usually took up the leftmost seats in Third Estate assemblies, and thus their ideas became known as the ideas of the Left. They endorsed more radical measures, such as replacing the Monarchy with a Republic, equalizing social rights, and intervening in the economy. In order to advance their ideology, they frequently turned to political violence.
  • The Plain or The Marsh: They were uncommitted politicians who did not adhere to a single ideology, were not part of any political club, and lacked leadership. Their designation comes from the fact that they usually sat at ground level in Third Estate assemblies. In terms of ideology, they were moderates who allied with either Girondins or Jacobins sporadically.
  • Sans-Culottes: They came from the lowest social classes, representing the peasants and the urban poor. Because of this, they adopted far-left ideals, such as direct democracy (people participating in politics without any intermediaries) and heavy government intervention in the economy, in order to control prices. Generally, they allied only with Jacobins.

1st Phase: National Assembly (1789-1792)

After common people stormed the Bastille and took up arms, some politicians who did not have national prominence formed the Paris Commune. It was a municipal assembly controlled by the Jacobins, in which there was criticism of the national government. In the meantime, the French Revolution entered its first phase, the National Assembly, which got its name from the institution that was elaborating a constitution for the country as a whole.

This phase was characterized by the rise to power of the Girondins, who had to face a situation known as the Great Fear: all over the country, peasants feared that the lack of food was part of an aristocratic plot to starve them to death. Accordingly, they armed themselves and began to attack the nobility, going insofar as threatening the stability of French society. Meanwhile, Third Estate representatives in Paris feared the peasants would make their way to the capital. In order to avoid such disruption, the Girondins espoused moderate policies that were meant to reassure peasants of the value of the Revolution:

  • Abolition of feudal rights: Even though Feudalism was long gone, certain privileges associated to it remained in France. Noblemen and clergymen had a monopoly over land, and the Third Estate was bound to pay certain taxes and duties to the nobility. All of it would end immediately.
  • Confiscation of Church properties: Every single piece of land and money that the Catholic Church had was seized by the government. These assets would serve to back a new paper currency created by the revolutionaries, called an assignat, so as to avoid generalized bankruptcies. Unfortunately, the assignats failed to keep inflation in check and the economy collapsed.
  • Promulgation of the Civil Constitution of the Clergy: The members of the clergy would be considered government employees, rather than Church employees. They were forced to forgo the rule of the Pope in favor of the principles set out by the National Assembly — including the fact that Church officials would be elected instead of chosen by Rome. Confronted with these changes, some priests accepted them, forming the Constitutional Clergy, while others entirely rejected them, forming the Refractory Clergy.
  • Promulgation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: This was a human rights document that announced the main values of the French Revolution — Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité). Based upon the ideals of the Enlightenment, it established that all men were equal before the law and all deserved to be free and to own private property. However, the Declaration did not envisage any ideas about the economic well-being of the masses.
  • Promulgation of the Le Chapelier Law: In order to extinguish the last traces of Mercantilism from France, this piece of legislation prescribed free trade as the norm. Yet workers’ economic liberty was to be curtailed by a ban on the formation of guilds (early versions of trade unions) and by a ban on the right to strike. This law evidently went against the interests of the masses, but entered into force anyway, as a way to stabilize the country.

Subsequently, the National Assembly turned France into a constitutional monarchy after approving the Constitution of 1791. It enshrined the principle of the separation of powers, ensuring that the king would not rule in an absolutist fashion. It kept the separation of Church and state that had already appeared when nationalizing the clergy. As proof of the Girondin control over the constituents, voting rights were restricted to propertied men — that is, excluding both women and the poor. Because of this, only about 15% of the French population were able to vote. Finally, in order to secure popular support for the revolutionary government, the Constitution dictated that national festivities had to be performed, mostly in open spaces and outside the main Parisian Squares.

This is a detailed colored engraving that captures a National Festivity during the French Revolution era. The scene is a bird’s-eye view of an elaborate outdoor celebration, possibly in a large public square or garden. The festivities are depicted with precise organization, with rows of spectators on both sides, some under the shelter of striped tents and others exposed to the open air. The attendees are dressed in period clothing, with women in long dresses and men in coats and hats. In the center, there is a large circular formation of participants, surrounded by uniformed soldiers and a disciplined crowd. Multiple regiments are seen marching in formation towards an ornate, triumphal arch-style structure. The background shows a palace and rural landscapes, suggesting this event takes place in an expansive royal or public ground. The overall depiction is of a grand and orderly celebration, with a sense of joy and national pride.
The Festival of the Federation was a massive event in Paris, in 1790, in order to celebrate the French Revolution. Anonymous image provided by the Museum of the French Revolution and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED.

The first phase of the French Revolution garnered significant international opposition by the absolutist monarchies of Europe. All of them were terrified of being overthrown, and they soon formed international coalitions to fight against the French revolutionaries. Meanwhile, the royal family attempted to flee to Austria, but Louis XVI ended up arrested and forced to ratify the Constitution of 1791. These events reinforced the instability of the Revolution and gave rise to another phase of it, with significant changes in politics, society and economics.

2nd Phase: National Convention (1792-1794)

This was a radical phase of the French Revolution, which was dominated by the Jacobins, with the support of the Sans-Culottes. At that time, the peasants and the urban workers were disappointed with the delay in implementing social reforms, and were vehemently opposed to the counterrevolutionary actions of other European powers. This made their revolutionary zeal grow exponentially and radicalism ensued, both domestically and internationally.

Within France’s borders, the Gregorian calendar was replaced by the French Revolutionary calendar. This change had the intention of removing all religious and royalist influences from the calendar. The new scheme would track the time after January 1st, 1789, taken as the beginning of Year I, the Year of Liberty. This would change in 1792, when French revolutionaries would overthrow the monarchy, summarily execute the royal family, and establish a Republic — it was a way to be responsive to the wishes of the common people. From then on, the first year of the calendar would be 1792, symbolizing the Republic itself.

The National Convention was supposed to be a provisional government, and it was expected to relinquish its power and give it to a regular government. Nevertheless, this arrangement persisted for quite some time, and the Convention elaborated the Constitution of 1793, with the following highlights:

  • Abolition of slavery in French colonies.
  • Universal manhood suffrage.
  • Land reform: redistribution of land, from wealthy landowners to the peasantry, without compensation for those who lost land.
  • Free public education.
  • Pensions for widows and orphans.
  • Law of the General Maximum: a cap on the prices of goods and services. This measure was imposed on the government by the Sans-Culottes and it helped to ensure proper feeding of the urban population.

During this phase of the French Revolution, the Jacobins clung to power by implementing what came to be known as the Reign of Terror: a series of massacres and executions that afflicted the opponents of the regime. To a large extent, this bloodbath was perpetrated by Committee of Public Safety, a body in charge of protecting the new republic against its foreign and domestic enemies. The Committee’s most notable leader was Maximilien Robespierre, who was essential to expanding the killings (even though he did not commence them). According to Eric Hobsbawm, indiscriminate violence was probably the only way to save the Revolution and, perhaps, even France itself as a country.

This historical painting depicts the execution of Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution. The scene is set in a public square, teeming with spectators and soldiers. In the center stands a wooden guillotine, its blade poised high against a hazy sky. Marie Antoinette, in a simple white dress, is portrayed at the moment before her execution, her regal bearing still evident despite her circumstances. She is surrounded by executioners and guards, some of whom are holding her down while others prepare the instrument of death. The crowd, a mix of civilians and military personnel, watches with a range of emotions. Some show signs of distress, while others appear impassive. The background features classical buildings, hinting at the Parisian setting. The overall mood of the painting is somber, capturing a notorious and grim moment in history.
Execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in a guillotine. Many such killings would take place. Image by unknown author, provided by Art Resource, in the public domain.

Internationally, France had to confront the absolutist monarchies of Europe, which built the First Coalition as an attempt to suppress the Revolution. Both revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries wanted a war, because both thought they could win it. At first, the revolutionaries won some battles while lost others. Later on, the French Army would vastly improve, helping to change the course of the conflict. Following a logic of total war, the French inaugurated conscription and made every citizen a fighter. Also, the Army would no longer reward its members based on social rank — the adoption of meritocracy meant that the best soldiers and officers would rise in the military career, and would afterwards guide their subordinates to more and more victories.

Thanks to the Army, France was able to halt the First Coalition. However, domestically, the situation was dire. In the midst of the Reign of Terror, the Jacobins split into two opposing factions. The Ultras, led by Jacques Hébert, pushed for stronger repression measures than those already in place, and campaigned for more measures against the interests of the Catholic Church. In turn, the Citras, led by Georges Danton, were adamantly opposed to the Reign of Terror and wanted it to end completely. Robespierre viewed both factions unfavorably and implemented a purge against them, but this only made him be even more estranged from the Jacobins as a whole.

In the coup of the 9 Thermidor, Girondin factions took advantage of the Jacobin schism and took power in the process called Thermidorian Reaction. Robespierre and his partisans, meanwhile, were condemned to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal. They would be executed at the Place de la Révolution — that is, at the very same place where they had killed their enemies.

3rd Phase: National Directory (1794-1799)

This was the final phase of the French Revolution. It was a conservative period, in which politics was dominated by the Girondins, with the support of the majority of congressmen from the Plain or the Marsh. At this time, the Girondins believed that Jacobin reforms had gone too far, threatening the stability of France. That is why the new government sought to undo much of what had been done before, and the promulgation of a new and entirely different Constitution exemplifies it. These were the highlights of the Constitution of 1795:

  • End of universal manhood suffrage: Voting rights became, once again, restricted to those who owned properties. This meant that the masses were excluded from politics one more time.
  • End of land reform.
  • Reinstitution of slavery in French colonies: This would encourage slave uprising in Haiti, in the Caribbean, ultimately leading to independence.
  • Establishment of a shared Executive Power: Power was shared by five directors, among which the Girondins prevailed. This fact explains why this phase of the Revolution was called the Directory.
  • Establishment of a bicameral Legislative Power: the Council of Five Hundred was the lower house, while the Council of Ancients (or Council of Elders) was the upper house.

Even though the Reign of Terror came to an end, many common people were dissatisfied with the setbacks in social policies. The masses reacted under the leadership of the Sans-Culottes, in the Conspiracy of the Equals: an attempt to overthrow the Directory. Spearheaded by Gracchus Babeuf, this coup d’état aspired to install an egalitarian and proto-socialist republic, inspired by Jacobin ideals. However, one of its leaders, Georges Grisel, denounced the movement and the government mounted a violent crackdown. Ultimately, the revolt failed.

Domestically, historians such as Michel Vovelle emphasize that life under the Directory was marred by corruption, poverty, violence and instability. Yet amidst all the chaos there was an institution that proved its worth: the Army. As Eric Hobsbawm argues, it is true that soldiers were lacking in training, discipline, intelligence, and proper systems of supplying and medical assistance. But they were successful precisely because of it: they needed quick victories in order to overcome these limitations. French troops successfully stifled political dissent within the country’s borders, and began to operate more effectively outside its borders. They defeated the foreign coalitions, then toppled many neighboring absolutist regimes and replaced them with sister republics, controlled by revolutionaries. It was the internationalization of the French Revolution.

At this time, the government was more and more at the mercy of soldiers, because their conquests helped to finance it. In particular, Napoleon Bonaparte, a general who personally oversaw several French victories abroad, garnered much popular support. He eventually realized that the civil government was weak and dependent upon military officials. In 1799, with the support of some politicians and intellectuals like Emmanuel Sieyès, Napoleon seized power in the Coup of 18 Brumaire. After a decade, the French Revolution finally ended.

This colored engraving captures a pivotal moment during the French Revolution, specifically the Coup d’État of 18 Brumaire by Napoleon Bonaparte. The scene is set in an austere room with high windows, through which daylight pours. It depicts a chaotic confrontation between various groups. In the foreground, two men in white robes with red drapery, representing members of the government, are being arrested or coerced by military officers in blue uniforms with white trousers and bicorne hats. One government member clutches a sheathed sword, symbolizing his power being overtaken. Behind them, other officers and government officials are engaged in a heated dispute, some with swords drawn. To the left, a group of men in red judicial robes gesture dramatically, indicating a scene of intense political upheaval. The overall composition conveys the tension and disorder of this historical event.
“The Coup d’État of 18 Brumaire”, an engraving by Giacomo Aliprandi representing Napoleon’s seizure of power. Public domain image.


The French Revolution, alongside the Industrial Revolution, is one of the two most important revolutions in the 18th century. It started because the bourgeoisie wanted more political representation, to the detriment of the clergy and the nobility, which wanted to preserve their privileges. Following the storming of the Bastille, the Revolution took a more popular vein, even though the first revolutionary government was moderate. The Reign of Terror made those opposed to the movement shiver — both within France and outside it —, and the absolutist monarchies of Europe tried to quell the French, to no avail. Girondins reacted to Jacobin excesses in the National Directory, but the weakness of the government paved the way for the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to power.

The Napoleonic Era would keep certain experiences inaugurated by the French Revolution, but not all of them. Napoleon would also last many more years in power, only to be defeated in 1815 by the absolutist powers. However, the spirit of the French Revolution would live on indefinitely, influencing many other revolts over the whole world. That is the legacy that it left behind.




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