A Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution

bas relief of the storming of the Bastille

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Between 1789 and 1802, France was wracked by a revolution which radically changed the government, administration, military, and culture of the nation as well as plunging Europe into a series of wars. France went from a largely "feudal" state under an absolutist monarch through the French Revolution to a republic which executed the king and then to an empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. Not only were centuries of law, tradition, and practice wiped away by a revolution few people had been able to predict going this far, but warfare spread the revolution across Europe, changing the continent permanently.

Key People

  • King Louis XVI: King of France when the revolution began in 1789, he was executed in 1792.
  • Emmanuel Sieyès: Deputy who helped radicalize the third estate and instigated the coup which brought the consuls to power.
  • Jean-Paul Marat: Popular journalist who advocated extreme measures against traitors and hoarders. Assassinated in 1793.
  • Maximilien Robespierre: Lawyer who went from advocating an end to the death penalty to the architect of the Terror. Executed in 1794.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: French general whose rise to power brought the revolution to an end.


Although historians are agreed that the French Revolution started in 1789, they are divided on the end date. A few histories stop in 1795 with the creation of the Directory, some stop in 1799 with the creation of the Consulate, while many more stop in 1802, when Napoleon Bonaparte became Consul for Life, or 1804 when he became Emperor. A rare few continue to the restoration of the monarchy in 1814.

In Brief

A medium-term financial crisis, caused partly by France's decisive involvement in the American Revolutionary War, led to the French crown first calling an Assembly of Notables and then, in 1789, a meeting called the Estates General in order to gain assent for new tax laws. The Enlightenment had affected the views of middle-class French society to the point where they demanded involvement in government and the financial crisis gave them a way in to get it. The Estates General was composed of three Estates: the clergy, the nobility, and the rest of France, but there were arguments over how fair this was: the Third Estate was far larger than the other two but only had a third of the vote. Debate ensued, with a call for the Third getting a bigger say. This "Third Estate," informed by long term doubts over the constitution of France and the development of a new social order of bourgeoisie, declared itself a National Assembly and decreed the suspension of taxation, taking French sovereignty into its own hands.

After a power struggle which saw the National Assembly take the Tennis Court Oath not to disband, the king gave in and the Assembly began reforming France, scrapping the old system and drawing up a new constitution with a Legislative Assembly. This continued the reforms but it created divisions in France by legislating against the church and declaring war on nations which supported the French king. In 1792, a second revolution took place, as Jacobins and sansculottes forced the Assembly to replace itself with a National Convention which abolished the monarchy, declared France a republic and in 1793, executed the king.

As the Revolutionary Wars went against France, as regions angry at attacks on the church and conscription rebelled and as the revolution became increasingly radicalized, the National Convention created a Committee of Public Safety to run France in 1793. After a struggle between political factions called the Girondins and the Montagnards was won by the latter, an era of bloody measures called The Terror began, when over 16,000 people were guillotined. In 1794, the revolution again changed, this time turning against the Terror and its architect Robespierre. The Terrorists were removed in a coup and a new constitution was drawn up which created, in 1795, a new legislative system run by a Directory of five men.

This remained in power thanks to rigging elections and purging the assemblies before being replaced, thanks to the army and a general called Napoleon Bonaparte, by a new constitution in 1799 which created three consuls to rule France. Bonaparte was the first consul and, while the reform of France continued, Bonaparte managed to bring the revolutionary wars to a close and have himself declared consul for life. In 1804 he crowned himself Emperor of France; the revolution was over, the empire had begun.


There is universal agreement that the political and administrative face of France was wholly altered: a republic based around elected—mainly bourgeois—deputies replaced a monarchy supported by nobles while the many and varied feudal systems were replaced by new, usually elected institutions which were applied universally across France. The culture was also affected, at least in the short term, with the revolution permeating every creative endeavor. However, there is still debate over whether the revolution permanently changed the social structures of France or whether they were only altered in the short term.

Europe was also changed. The revolutionaries of 1792 began a war which extended through the Imperial period and forced nations to marshal their resources to a greater extent than ever before. Some areas, like Belgium and Switzerland, became client states of France with reforms similar to those of the revolution. National identities also began coalescing like never before. The many and fast developing ideologies of the revolution were also spread across Europe, helped by French being the continental elite’s dominant language. The French Revolution has often been called the start of the modern world, and while this is an exaggeration—many of the supposed "revolutionary" developments had precursors—it was an epochal event that permanently changed the European mindset. Patriotism, devotion to the state instead of the monarch, mass warfare, all became solidified in the modern mind.

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Wilde, Robert. "A Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-the-french-revolution-1221900. Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). A Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-the-french-revolution-1221900 Wilde, Robert. "A Beginner's Guide to the French Revolution." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/beginners-guide-to-the-french-revolution-1221900 (accessed June 7, 2023).