French Revolution Timeline: 6 Phases of Revolution

This timeline is designed to accompany your reading on the French Revolution from pre-1789 to 1802. Readers searching for a timeline with greater detail are advised to look at Colin Jones' "The Longman Companion to the French Revolution" which contains one general timeline and several specialist ones. Readers wanting a narrative history can try ours, which runs to several pages, or go for our recommended volume, Doyle's Oxford History of the French Revolution. Where the reference books disagree over a particular date (mercifully few for this period), I have sided with the majority.

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Louis XVI
Louis XVI. Wikimedia Commons

A series of social and political tensions build within France, before being unleashed by a financial crisis in the 1780s. While the financial situation was partly caused by bad handling, poor revenue management and royal over spending, the decisive French contribution to the American Revolutionary War made a huge financial dent too. One revolution ended up triggering another, and both changed the world. By the end of the 1780s the king and his ministers are desperate for a way to raise taxes and money, so desperate they will resort to historical gatherings of subjects for support.

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Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette. Wikimedia Commons

An Estates General is called to give the king consent to sort out the finances, but it's been so long since it was called there is room to argue about its form, including whether the three estates can vote equally or proportionally. Instead of bowing to the king the Estates General takes radical action, declaring itself a Legislative Assembly and seizing sovereignty. It starts tearing down the old regime and creating a new France by passing a series of laws which strip away centuries of laws, rules and divisions. These are some of the most frenetic and important days in Europe's history.

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Marie Antoinette's execution on October 16, 1793
Marie Antoinette's execution; the (dead?) head is being held to the crowd. Wikimedia Commons

The French king was always uneasy with his role in the revolution; the revolution was always uneasy with the king. An attempt to flee doesn't help his reputation, and as the countries outside France mishandle events a second revolution occurs, as Jacobins and sansculottes force the creation of a French Republic. The king is executed. The Legislative Assembly is replaced by the new National Convention.

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With foreign enemies attacking from outside France and violent opposition occurring within, the ruling Committee of Public Safety put into practice government by terror. Their rule is short but bloody, and the guillotine is combined with guns, cannons and blades to execute thousands, in an attempt to create a purified nation. Robespierre, who once called for the abolition of the death penalty, becomes a virtual dictator, until he and his supporters are executed in turn. A White Terror follows attacking the terrorists. Remarkably, this horrific stain on the revolution found supporters in the Russian Revolution of 1917 who emulated it in Red Terror.

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The Directory is created and put in charge of France, as the nation’s fortunes wax and wane. The Directory rules through a series of coups, but it brings a form of peace and a form of accepted corruption, while the armies of France have great success abroad. In fact the armies are so successful some consider using a General to create a new type of government...

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Plotters choose a young General called Napoleon Bonaparte to make a move on power, aiming to use him as a figurehead. They picked the wrong person, as Napoleon seizes power for himself, ending the Revolution and consolidating some of its reforms into what would become an empire by finding a way to bring huge numbers of previously opposed people into line behind him.

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Wilde, Robert. "French Revolution Timeline: 6 Phases of Revolution." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). French Revolution Timeline: 6 Phases of Revolution. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "French Revolution Timeline: 6 Phases of Revolution." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).