When did the French Revolution End?

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The Tennis Court Oath. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Almost all historians agree that the French Revolution, that great maelstrom of ideas, politics and violence, started in 1789, when a gathering of the Estates General turned into a dissolving of the social order and the creation of a new representative body. What they don’t agree on is when the Revolution came to an end. While you can find the occasional reference to France still being in the revolutionary era now, most commentators see a difference between the revolution and the imperial rule of Napoleon Bonaparte and the age of wars which bear his name.

Below are the common end dates, and what happened to cause them.

1795: The Directory

In 1795, with rule by Terror over, the National Convention designed a new system for governing France. This involved two councils and a ruling body of five Directors, known as the Directory. In October 1795 Parisians angry at the state of France, including the idea of the Directory, gathered and marched in protest, but they were repelled by troops guarding strategic areas. This failure was the last time the citizens of Paris appeared able to take charge of the revolution, as they had so powerfully done before, and is considered a turning point in the revolution; indeed, some consider it the end. Soon after this, the Directory staged a coup to remove royalists, and their rule for the next four years would be marked by constant vote rigging to stay in power, an action at odds with the dreams of the original revolutionaries.

The Directory certainly marked the death of many revolutionary ideals.

1799: The Consulate

The military had taken a large role in the changes wrought by the French Revolution before 1799, but never had a General used the army to force change. The Coup of Brumaire, which took place in the later months of 1799, was organised by Director and author Sieyés, who decided that the undefeated and feted General Bonaparte would be a tame figure who could use the army to seize power.

The coup didn’t run smoothly, but no blood was shed beyond Napoleon’s cheek, and by December 1799 a new government was created. This would be run by three consuls: Napoleon, Sieyés (who had originally wanted Napoleon to be a figurehead and have no power), and a third man called Ducos. The Consulate is taken to be the end because it was, technically, a military coup rather than a movement pushed along by the - however theoretically - ‘will of the people’, unlike the earlier revolution.

1802: Napoleon Consul for Life

Although power was vested in three consuls, Napoleon soon began to take charge. He won further battles, instituted reforms, started drafting a new series of laws and raised his influence and profile. In 1802 Sieyés began to criticise the man he had hoped to use as a puppet, and the other governmental bodies began to refuse to pass Napoleon’s laws, so he bloodlessly purged them and leveraged his popularity into having himself declared consul for life. This is sometimes taken as the end of the revolution as his new position was almost monarchical in its dimensions, and certainly represents a break with the careful checks, balances and elected positions desired by earlier reformers.

1804: Napoleon made Emperor

In 1804, fresh off more propaganda victories and with his popularity nearly at its zenith, Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. The French Republic was over, and the French empire had begun. This is perhaps the most obvious date to use as the end of the Revolution, for although Napoleon had been building his power since the consulate, France was transformed into a new form of nation and government, one considered almost opposite to the hopes of many revolutionaries. This wasn't simply pure megalomania by Napoleon, because he had to work hard to reconcile the conflicting forces of the revolution and establish a degree of peace. He had to get old monarchists working with revolutionaries, and try to get everyone working together, under him. In many respects he was successful, knowing how to bribe and coerce to unify much of France, and being surprisingly forgiving.

Of course, this was partly based on the glory of conquest. It is possible to claim that the revolution came to an end gradually over the Napoleonic era, rather than any single power grabbing date, but this frustrates people who like crisp answers.

1815: The end of the Napoleonic Wars

It’s unusual, but not impossible, to find books which include the Napoleonic Wars alongside the Revolution, and consider the two part of the same arc. Napoleon had risen through opportunities afforded by the Revolution, and his fall in first 1814 and then 1815 saw the return of the French monarchy, clearly a notional return to pre-revolutionary times, even if France could not be returned to that era. However, the monarchy did not last long, and neither did the monarchy, rendering this a difficult end point for the revolution, as others followed soon.