French Revolution: Summary |

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternity! («Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!») – These slogans express the values ​​of the French Revolution. During this time, citizens strove for social and political equality.

This explanation gives you an overview. To learn more about the individual events of the French Revolution, we recommend that you also read the other explanations in the subset.

French Revolution – Summary

The French Revolution happened between 1789 and 1799. During this time, the citizens leaned against the rule of the king up and campaigned for more co-determination.

French Revolution: Causes

The lynchpin of the French Revolution was citizen dissatisfaction. There were several reasons for this.

France became absolutist reigns. That is, the entire power of the state rested with the king – Louis XVI.

France was divided into three estates at the time of the French Revolution. These estates embodied the social classes of the country.

  1. The first stand formed the clergy (clergy)so bishops, monks etc. .
  2. Of the second stand included the Noble (apart from the king).
  3. in the third booth united the rest of the population – Citizens, craftsmen, farmers etc.

Although the first two estates made up only about 2% of the French population, they owned most of the farmed land. However, they did not have to pay taxes – this burden was borne solely by the third estate, while the nobility and clergy enjoyed the closeness and influence of the king.

The cartoon below points to the shortcomings of this system. A peasant – recognizable by his simple, tattered clothing and hook – carries a sword-wielding nobleman and a cross-chained cleric on his back. While the nobleman and the clergyman are enjoying the situation from the facial expressions, the peasant is bent over heavily and seems strained. The caption reads: «A faut esperer q’eu jeu la finira bentot» («It may be hoped that the game will be over soon»).

Figure 1: Caricature of corporate society at the time of the French Revolution


Of the third stand suffered under the provisions of the king. He had no political power but was heavily taxed to enable the other two estates to live. In addition, the approaching bankruptcy of France weighed heavily on the poorer population in particular. Basic foods became so expensive that whole days’ wages often had to be sacrificed for one meal.

This poor economic situation of the kingdom was mainly due to the ongoing military spending. France always kept its army intact. In addition, costly wars in the decades before the revolution had curtailed the state budget. Of the Seven Years’ War from 1756 to 1763 was particularly expensive. After suffering defeat, France lost most of its possessions in North America and India.

Want to learn more about the Seven Years’ War? Then please read our explanation.

The population then accused the king of failure. This could not restore the strength of the formerly most powerful country in Europe after the Seven Years’ War.

Another reason for the economic misfortune of France was the national debt, which was caused by the extravagant life at court of Versailles accumulated. Court life took place there, including celebrations and festivals.

Queen Marie Antoinette in particular was said to have spent a fortune on her fashion and festivals.

Ultimately also fueled the idea of enlightenment the dissatisfaction of the population. Previously, the prevailing view was that king and church were created by God’s will govern. God served as the justification for the oppression of the populace. The Enlightenment challenged this view and emphasized human equality and freedom. She also propagated participatory forms of government, such as democracies. in the In the 18th century, these ideas spread throughout Europe through philosophers and writers.

You can find more information about the enlightenment in the appropriate explanation!

All these circumstances bundled in the year 1789. A famine also hit the population. The bad harvests of 1787 and 1788 and a hard winter 1788 led to supply bottlenecks that France could not compensate for financially. Here you will find a brief summary of the causes of the French Revolution:

  • the absolute rule of the king and the oppression of the third estate
  • the high tax burden of the third estate and its poverty
  • the nation’s financial plight
  • the Enlightenment
  • a famine caused by crop failures

French Revolution: phases

The French Revolution can be roughly in three phases organize:

  • 1789-1791: Introduction of the constitutional monarchy
  • 1792-1794: Reign of Terror of the Jacobins
  • 1795-1799: Rule of the Governing Board

First phase

The trigger for the revolution was Convocation of the States General. This gathering was the last straw, so to speak.

the Estates General designate the meeting of the representatives of the estates.

The third estate generally held no power. In theory, there was one exception to this rule: in crisis situations, the king could convoke the States General. There they met representatives of the three estates and voted.

At the May 5, 1789 the king summoned the States-General to bring about a solution to the financial emergency. The problem he faced: The third estate could not be taxed any more, it was already on the poverty line. However, the first and second estates, nobility and clergy, refused to pay taxes themselves. By then, the king had already borrowed a lot of money from the second estate to stem the national debt.

The assembly of the Estates-General now showed the Third Estate its impotence. In advance of the meeting he had asked for a delegation twice as large as that of the first two estates – after all, the third estate made up the majority of the population. He had also called for per capita voting by deputies, not by status. Otherwise the nobility and clergy could have overruled the third estate at any time with a 2:1 majority. While the first demand was granted – the third estate was represented by about 600 deputies, clergy and nobility each with only about 300 – the vote was still held by estates.

Within each estate prevailed disagreement about how to proceed, for a long time nothing happened. Finally, the third estate suggested convening a separate assembly. This idea was followed by the majority of the first and second estate. So became on June 17, 1789 the National Assembly established. This should draw up a new, fairer constitution nationwide. At the June 20, 1789 the participants of the National Assembly gave themselves the so-called Ballhaus Oath.

The Ballhaus oath contained a promise to maintain the National Assembly until a new constitution was drafted.

The name Ballhausschwur goes back to the place of assembly. Since the king had the meeting room closed, the National Assembly moved to the neighboring ball sports hall.

You can also find an explanation of the Ballhaus oath on .

With the founding of the National Assembly the revolution began, because with it the estates oppose the king. Outside the assembly, too, the revolution began to gain a foothold. The first revolutionary event is the Storming of the Bastille at the July 14, 1789.

Figure 2: Storming of the Bastille by Jean-Pierre Houel


The Bastille, a prison in Paris, was sparsely occupied at the time of the uprising. However, the insurgents were able to obtain weapons through the storm. It also served as a symbolic act, as the Bastille embodied royal power and oppression.

The protests spread across the country. Peasants rebelled against their landowners and plundered estates.

Fearing the revolution, the king tried to June 20, 1791 to flee to Varennes, however, failed.

In order to placate everyone involved, the National Assembly had to push for a solution. The first step in this direction was the Declaration of Human and Civil Rights at the August 26, 1789. She made all (male) citizens equal before the law and formulated modernizations in the areas of personal freedom, justice, administration and finance. The king had to agree to this declaration under pressure.

The individual resolutions of the «Declaration of Human and Civil Rights» can be found in the appropriate declaration!

The power of the king was now severely limited. In order to bind him to the decisions of the National Assembly in the future as well, the latter decided on September 3, 1791 a new constitution. In it she declared France to be a constitutional monarchy from then on. This entailed the introduction of a parliament, which made decisions that the king only had to carry out.

second phase

Although the first phase of the revolution brought with it considerable social changes, the core of the problem – the dissatisfaction and poverty of the broader population – was not yet solved. In theory, the people had a say in the new constitution, but in practice this was very limited. That’s how it existed census suffrage. This stipulated that only certain male citizens – mainly those with high incomes – could vote. It was primarily the upper middle classes who benefited from the first phase of the revolution.

The sans-culottes in particular did not accept this development. They demanded equality for all citizens, which they wanted to radically enforce.

The term sans-culottes derives from the French sans culotte what roughly translates to «without knee breeches». Only the wealthy and the nobility wore this garment, which is why the lower class identified with this antonym.

At the same time, the Jacobins, a political club, gained increasing importance in the National Assembly. They took advantage of the displeasure of the sans-culottes and gained followers nationwide. leader of the Jacobins Maximilien de Robespierre. Under him began the so-called reign of terror.

Figure 3: Maximilien de Robespierre Source:

Meanwhile, the nobility began to fear these developments and wished for their special position back. Many French nobles fled abroad in fear for their lives.

France was now increasingly threatened from outside. Concern that the bourgeois revolution could spread to other European countries led to the unification of Austria, Prussia and Great Britain. This coalition opposed France in order to restore the old order there under the rule of the king….