The French Revolution

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What event marked the beginning of the French Revolution?

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The storming of the Bastille on 14th July, 1789, is usually taken to be the day on which the French Revolution began. The significance of the event, however, is more symbolic than anything else——the Bastille was a grim fortress-like prison, which came to symbolize in the minds of many the evils of royal tyranny. Its destruction, therefore, constituted a direct, full-frontal attack on the institutions of the ancien regime. However, in terms of substance, one could just as easily argue that the Revolution truly began when the Third Estate unilaterally declared itself the National Assembly on 4th June, just over a month before the Bastille was stormed.

Revolution had been in the air for some time, not least after a disastrous series of failed harvests and with France on the verge of bankruptcy. Violent disorder had also been a common feature of French political life, especially in the countryside where large numbers of peasants genuinely believed that the aristocracy was hoarding food and deliberately trying to starve them. The general atmosphere in France was feverish in the extreme, and it was only a matter of time before a full-scale revolution broke out. To some extent, then, the storming of the Bastille represented an inevitable culmination of a process long in the making.

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Prior to the Revolution, France had fallen into a terrible debt due to several poor harvests and their involvement in the American Revolution and the Seven Years' War. The government tried to remedy this by imposing a number of tax schemes, at the displeasure of the common people. In May of 1789, the King called for a meeting of the Estates-General. This was a meeting of the three classes of French society- the clergy, the nobility, and "everyone else." The Third Estate was made up of "everyone else," the commoners and laborers of society. The intention of the Estates-General was to discuss the financial state of France, but the Third Estate lead the debate and instead focused on the structure of the French government. The declared themselves the National Assembly and quickly gained a following with the intent to overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic. 

Later that year, on 14th of July, the French people stormed the Bastille, a prison fortress and a symbol of the Ancien Regime. While the Estates-General and the establishment of the National Assembly are the formal beginning of the French Revolution, the storming of the Bastille marks the beginning of practical efforts to overthrow and attack the monarchy.

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